WASHINGTON — On the opening day of his divisive confirmation hearings, Judge Neil Gorsuch promised Monday that if he were elevated to the Supreme Court, he would strive for independence and integrity.
“I will do all in my power,” he said, “to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great nation.”
But Gorsuch’s polished opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee followed hours of remarks from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that confirmed a stark partisan divide on his nomination.
Republican senators portrayed Gorsuch as a highly qualified and independent jurist.
Democrats said they were troubled by a judicial record that they said was animated by a cold and literal reading of the law and skewed toward business interests. They also denounced Republicans for failing to approve former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick B. Garland.
Pledging to dispense equal justice to “poor and rich,” Gorsuch said the judicial role was “not about politics.” Rather, he said, a judge’s plain black robes reflect a different role, representing independence. “The robe does mean something to me,” he said, “and not just that I can hide the coffee stains on my shirt.”
Democrats were expected to highlight Republicans’ refusal to even meet with Garland last year. But the frequency and ferocity of their attacks in their opening statements were notable out of the gate.
Meeting with Gorsuch and participating in the hearing, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said, represented “a courtesy which Senate Republicans denied to Judge Garland.”
Gorsuch was introduced by the two senators from his home state, Colorado. The third introduction, though, came from a less typical source: Neal K. Katyal, a well-known liberal lawyer who served as acting solicitor general in the Obama administration.
“This is a first-rate intellect and a fair and decent man,” Katyal said of Gorsuch.
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, used his remarks to defend his party’s decision to hold open the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, arguing that allowing Obama to fill the seat would have endangered Scalia’s legacy.
Cruz said that the dispute over the vacancy figured into the presidential election result conferred a “super-legitimacy” on Gorsuch because voters had their say — an unusual idea that would no doubt be strongly disputed by Democrats.
Before the election, Cruz had been among those Republicans suggesting that they should hold the seat open indefinitely if Hillary Clinton won the election.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, issued a blistering attack on the US Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, listing more than a dozen decisions in which the court had voted, 5 to 4, to limit voting rights, increase the role of money in politics, and favor business interests. In each, he said, the five Republican appointees were in the majority.
The Roberts court has been closely divided along partisan lines. Several studies have also showed that the Roberts court tends to favor business interests.
If Gorsuch fills the seat left vacant by Scalia’s death last year, he will return the court to a familiar dynamic, with a five-member majority of conservative justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, and a four-member bloc of liberal justices, all appointed by Democratic presidents.
Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing by suggesting that Democrats’ concern about an independent judiciary under Trump sounds familiar to critics of the Obama administration.
“Some of my colleagues seem to have rediscovered an appreciation for the need to confine each branch of government to its constitutional sphere,” Grassley said. “Some of us have been alarmed by executive overreach, and the threat it poses to the separation of powers.”
Grassley laid out a schedule for a vote on Trump’s nominee for two weeks from today. That could lead to a floor vote later that week, the timetable Republicans intend to meet.
In her opening statement, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, turned immediately to the plight of Garland, whose nomination by Obama languished for nearly 10 months, and never received a hearing.
“We’re here today under very unusual circumstances,” she said. “Merrick Garland was widely regarded as a mainstream moderate nominee,” she added.
Regardless, Feinstein said, the committee’s task was now “to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable mainstream conservative, or is he not?”
She ticked off areas of interest, including abortion, voting rights, guns, and the environment.
Opening a new line of attack, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said Gorsuch was “selected by interest groups.” The Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, played a leading role in drawing up Trump’s lists of potential nominees and in narrowing down a single finalist.
In his Senate questionnaire, Gorsuch was asked to describe who had first contacted him from the White House about the possibility that he would be elevated to the Supreme Court.
“I was contacted by Leonard Leo,” he said, referring to an exceptionally influential executive vice president of the Federalist Society.