US Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch is a conservative who backs religious rights

Neil Gorsuch, federal judge serving on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals, delivers remarks after US President Donald J. Trump announced him as his nominee for the Supreme Court.
Neil Gorsuch, federal judge serving on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals, delivers remarks after US President Donald J. Trump announced him as his nominee for the Supreme Court.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, the US Supreme Court pick of President Donald Trump, is a conservative intellectual known for backing religious rights and seen as very much in the mould of Antonin Scalia, the justice he was chosen to replace.

Judge Gorsuch, who has not shied away from needling liberals on occasion, is 49 and could influence the high court for decades to come in the lifetime post, if confirmed by the Republican-led Senate.

He is the youngest Supreme Court nominee since Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1991 picked Judge Clarence Thomas, who was 43 at the time.

He currently serves as a judge on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the city where he was born. He was appointed to that post in 2006 by Republican President George W. Bush.

Judge Gorsuch, who is white, adds little diversity to the court compared with the justices appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, both of whom were women, one becoming the first Latina justice.

 

But he offers geographical diversity to a court dominated by justices from the east and west coasts. As an Episcopalian, he would be the only Protestant on the court, which has three Jewish justices and five Catholics.

He is seen by analysts as a jurist similar to Judge Scalia, who died on Feb 13, 2016. The latter, praised by Judge Gorsuch as "a lion of the law," was known not only for his hardline conservatism but for interpreting the US Constitution based on what he considered its original meaning, and laws as written by legislators.

Like his predecessor, Judge Gorsuch is known for sharp writing skills. "It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people's representatives," he said on Tuesday (Jan 31) at the White House event announcing the nomination in remarks that echoed Judge Scalia's views.

Mr Trump, a Republican, had the chance to nominate Judge Gorsuch because the Republican-led US Senate last year refused to consider Mr Obama's nominee, appeals court judge Merrick Garland.

Democrats, angered by the treatment of Judge Garland, and opposed Judge Gorsuch's conservative views, may seek to block his nomination.

Mr Trump may have favoured Judge Gorsuch for the job in hopes of a smoother confirmation process than for other potential candidates such as appeals court judge William Pryor, who has called the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalising abortion "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history."

FAMILIAR GROUND

The federal government is familiar territory for Judge Gorsuch, who is the son of Ms Anne Burford, the first woman to head the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She served as Republican President Ronald Reagan's top environmental official but resigned in 1983, just 22 months into the job, amid a fight with Congress over documents on the EPA's use of a fund created to clean up toxic waste dumps nationwide.

She was criticised by environmentalists for cutting the agency's enforcement efforts against polluters and slowing payments for cleaning up toxic waste.

The high court is also familiar ground for Judge Gorsuch, who served as a clerk for two justices including a current member of the court, Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts a deciding vote in close decisions.

If confirmed, he would become the first clerk to join a former boss on the Supreme Court. He also served as a clerk for Justice Byron White, a John F. Kennedy appointee, who retired from the court in 1993.

Judge Gorsuch has strong, Ivy League academic qualifications: attending Columbia University and, like several of the other justices on the court, Harvard Law School, graduating the same year as Obama. He completed a doctorate in legal philosophy at Oxford University, spent several years in private practice and worked in George W. Bush's Justice Department.

CRITIC OF LIBERALS

In a 2005 article in the conservative National Review magazine, Judge Gorsuch criticised American liberals' "overweening addiction to the courtroom" to implement a social agenda "on everything from gay marriage to assisted suicide."

In his Senate confirmation hearing for his appellate court judgeship, he said the point of the article could be applied to groups across the political spectrum.

In 2013, he played a role in a high-profile ruling involving arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, allowing owners of private companies to object on religious grounds to an Obamacare provision requiring employers to provide health insurance covering birth control for women.

The decision, later upheld by the US Supreme Court, said the provision violated a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a concurrence, Judge Gorsuch expressed sympathy for the choice faced by the evangelical Christian owners of the company "between exercising their faith or saving their business."

He also criticised an important legal doctrine that directs courts to defer to federal agencies' interpretation of statutes. Last August, in a case over immigration rules, he called the doctrine the "elephant in the room" that concentrates federal power "in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution."

He has written extensively on the topic of assisted suicide and euthanasia, arguing against legalisation. In written questions related to his Senate confirmation hearings, he was asked whether his writings would make him biased in any case on the matter before him. He said his personal views would play no role in his decisions as a judge.

Judge Gorsuch is married with two teenage daughters, and lives outside of Boulder, Colorado.

Friends and former clerks said he was a lover of the outdoors, describing him as an excellent skier, a fly fisherman and a runner.

"We used to joke that he should be the face of Colorado tourism," former clerk Jane Nitze said.