At the first day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch, Republicans praised the nominee while Democrats scrutinized the judge and the circumstances surrounding the hearing.
“I am deeply disappointed that it is under these circumstances that we begin these hearings,” Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, said. She added that Gorsuch was only sitting before them due to the “unprecedented treatment” of Judge Merrick Garland.
The nomination of Garland, former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the high court, was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who determined that the next president should nominate the new judge.
Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, also used his time to speak highly of Judge Garland. While he called Judge Gorsuch a “first-rate intellect and a fair and decent man” he added it is “a tragedy of national proportions that Merrick Garland does not sit on the court.”
But, according to Feinstein, “Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable conservative or is he not.”
Democrats raised concerns about Judge Gorsuch’s “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, meaning Gorsuch believes the Constitution should be interpreted the way it was intended at the time it was written.
“If we were to dogmatically adhere to originalist interpretations, then we would still have segregated schools and bans on interracial marriage,” Feinstein noted. “Women wouldn’t be entitled to equal protection under the law, and government discrimination against LGBT Americans would be permitted.”
Democrats said they plan to come down on Judge Gorsuch to clarify his views on certain issues that he has given opinions on before, such as religious freedom.
“Religious freedom must not be the freedom to push our beliefs into the public square,” Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) said.
Judge Gorsuch previously joined the conservative majority in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, determining that religious beliefs are grounds for challenging government rules regarding healthcare.
Committee Democrats will also, over the coming days, raise questions about Judge Gorsuch’s ability to declare independence from President Donald Trump, particularly due to Trump’s unprecedented attacks on judges.
“You have a special responsibility here this week, which is to advocate for and defend the independence of our judiciary against those kinds of attacks,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
“Since the moment he stepped foot in the Oval Office, President Trump has attacked equality.”
Blumenthal also brought up FBI Director James Comey’s testimony regarding potential ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, which took place the same day as the first day of Judge Gorsuch’s hearing.
It “is no longer idle speculation” that the high court may have to subpoena the president, Blumenthal noted.
“The independence of the judiciary is more important than ever, and your defense of it is critical,” he told Judge Gorsuch.
In defense of Judge Gorsuch, Republicans tried to separate the judge from the president.
“The nominee before us today is not President Trump,” said Republican Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.).
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who competed against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and has been a frequent critic of Trump, joked that to believe blocking Judge Garland’s nomination was a way to give Trump influence over the Supreme Court meant assuming from the start that Trump was going to win the election — which he did not believe.
“If you believe this has been a great plan to get a Trump nominee on the court, then you had to believe Trump was going to win to begin with,” said Graham. Graham also reminded Democrats to focus on Gorsuch’s qualifications rather than the political party of the person who nominated him.
“I’m dying to hear someone over there tell me why [Gorsuch] is not qualified to be sitting here,” said Graham, who voted in favor of two Obama SCOTUS nominees: Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
However, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he’d like to know why White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus once said Judge Gorsuch “represents the type of judge that has the vision of Donald Trump.”
“You’re going to have your hands full with this president,” Durbin told Judge Gorsuch. “He’s going to keep you busy. It’s incumbent on any nominee to demonstrate that he or she will serve as an independent check or balance on his presidency. There are some warning flags.”
Democrats also questioned Judge Gorsuch’s ability to support “the little guy.”
“You rarely seem to rule in favor of the little guy,” said Hawaiian Sen. Mazie Hirono.
Durbin recalled a case in which Judge Gorsuch dissented that involved a man who was fired from a trucking company. The man, Alphonse Maddin, abandoned his truck after it became inoperable and sought help as temperatures plummeted significantly.
The subzero temperatures were “not as cold as your dissent, Judge Gorsuch,” Durbin said.