WASHINGTON — African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and women are watching anxiously as the Supreme Court considers important cases with the addition of new, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Many are worried his judicial ideology, which is closely aligned with the archconservative judge he is replacing, will erode existing civil rights protections for people of color, women and the LGBT community and will thwart efforts to expand those rights.
Gorsuch is filling the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia, who died last year. Scalia was a forceful legal opponent to affirmative action and various civil rights matters, particularly protections for LGBT Americans.
Gorsuch will be pivotal on several cases expected to come before the court, including a Texas challenge to an Obama immigration policy and another on the ability of unions to collect fees. Experts say other upcoming cases in which the new justice could tip the scales deal with employment and immigration, religion and education.
Currently, Gorsuch and other justices are considering whether to hear a case involving the right to carry concealed weapons publicly.
Kyle Barry, policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said his organization and others are concerned because the effect of Gorsuch’s ruling and presence on the court will last for years.
“This is for the next generation,” Barry said. “We’re talking about a life-tenured position for a relatively young nominee who may serve for decades while in the Supreme Court.”
The NAACP LDF reviewed Gorsuch’s judicial record, with a focus on the civil rights and constitutional issues that are of greatest relevance to the clients LDF represents, Barry said.
Its legal analysts examined all of his written opinions and dissents on issues of employment and housing discrimination, criminal justice, voting rights and access to the courts — as well as his votes in relevant cases in which other judges authored the decision.
“Based on a review of his record, we’ve found he has applied civil rights very narrowly, including discrimination in the workplace and even whether or not civil rights cases can have their date in court in the first place,” Barry said.
The LDF’s report also said Gorsuch holds views on government regulation that could undermine civil rights enforcement and deepen racial inequality. His views regarding the important work of federal agencies could lead to fewer and weaker protections for workers, the environment, consumers, and public health — resulting in harms that would disproportionately affect African-Americans and other people of color.
Barry, Democratic senators and other opponents cite the 2009 case of Alphonse Maddin as an example of Gorsuch’s affinity for siding with business rather than workers in his rulings.
Maddin was a trucker who got stuck on the road in sub-zero temperatures. To survive, Maddin abandoned his cargo to seek help. His employer fired him because he left his truck unattended.
In response, Maddin sued and seven judges ruled in his favor. Only one judge, Gorsuch, did not.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, cited the case as one reason why she opposed Gorsuch for the nation’s highest court.
“Unfortunately, based on Judge Gorsuch’s record at the Department of Justice, his tenure on the bench, his appearance before the Senate and his written questions for the record, I cannot support this nomination,” Feinstein told colleagues before the scheduled committee vote on his nomination.
Like the other justices on the court, Gorsuch comes with impeccable credentials. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He also received a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University.
The American Bar Association reviewed Gorsuch’s judicial history and unanimously declared him to be “well qualified” to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ABA did not consider Gorsuch’s ideology, political views or political affiliation. Its evaluation was “based solely on a comprehensive, nonpartisan, nonideological peer review of his integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament,” said Nancy Scott Degan, chair of the ABA.
Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney at the D.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), differs in his opinion on Gorsuch’s impact on the court.
The ACLU is a nonpartisan organization whose stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Michelman said though Gorsuch is not an advocate for civil rights and LGBT rights like his Democratic counterparts, the Supreme Court will continue its legacy of making changes for the best with Gorsuch present.
“Although the court was for much of its history a conservative institution that protected existing power structures at the expense of African-Americans in the past century and particularly in the past 63 years, the court has protected and advanced the rights of African-Americans in many important ways,” Michelman said. “Recent years have seen the court back away from civil rights enforcement, most notoriously in striking down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, but the court has also preserved affirmative action and rebuffed an attempt to narrow the Fair Housing Act.”