WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch pledged to be independent or "hang up the robe" as the U.S. Senate began rancorous hearings Monday on President Donald Trump's conservative pick to fill a Supreme Court seat that has been vacant for more than a year.
Gorsuch sought to take the edge off Democratic complaints that he has favored the wealthy and powerful in more than 10 years as a federal judge. The 49-year-old Coloradan told the Senate Judiciary Committee he has tried to be a "neutral and independent" judge and has ruled both for and against disabled students, prisoners and workers alleging civil rights violations.
"But my decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me, only my best judgment about the law and facts at issue in each particular case," Gorsuch said. That was his opening statement a day ahead of expected pointed questioning from committee Democrats.
A Supreme Court confirmation hearing is a major occasion on Capitol Hill — the last one was in 2010 — but Monday's was overshadowed by a separate event in the Capitol complex. On the House side, FBI Director James Comey was testifying that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in last year's election and possible links and coordination between Russia and associates of Trump.
Blending the two hearings, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut referred to "a looming constitutional crisis" that the Supreme Court might need to resolve. The court's eight current justices are roughly divided ideologically between conservatives and liberals.
The Russian story line as well as Trump's verbal attacks on federal judges both during the campaign and as president have fed into Democratic efforts to force Gorsuch to break publicly with the man who nominated him. Gorsuch already has told some senators in private meetings that he found the criticism of the judges disheartening. But Blumenthal said the nominee needs to make a statement "publicly and explicitly and directly."
For their part, Republicans uniformly portrayed Gorsuch as a genial, principled judge whose qualifications make him eminently suitable for the nation's highest court. "I'm looking for a judge, not an ideologue," Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said.
Actual questioning is to begin Tuesday. Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he expects a committee vote on Gorsuch's nomination on April 3, which would allow the full Senate to take up the nomination that week. Gorsuch could be on the bench by the time the justices meet for a round of arguments in mid-April.
Democrats, under intense pressure from liberal base voters horrified by the Trump presidency, entered the hearings divided over how hard to fight Gorsuch's nomination given that the mild-mannered jurist is no right-wing bomb thrower and is widely expected to win confirmation in the end, one way or another.
Even while insisting they would evaluate Gorsuch fairly, several spoke angrily about the treatment of Judge Merrick Garland, Obama's Supreme Court nominee, who was denied even a hearing for 10 months last year by Senate Republicans. The Democrats also took shots at Trump himself, and criticized the fact that Gorsuch appeared on a list of potential Supreme Court nominees vetted by the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.
"Senate Republicans made a big show last year about respecting the voice of the American people in this process," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "Now they are arguing that the Senate should rubber stamp a nominee selected by extreme interest groups and nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., repeated a comment by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus last month that Gorsuch "represents the type of judge that has the vision of Donald Trump."
"I want to hear from you why Mr. Priebus would say that," Durbin said to Gorsuch. "Most Americans question whether we need a Supreme Court justice with the vision of Donald Trump."
Republican senators disputed the Democratic criticism.
"If you believe this has been a great plan to get a Trump nominee on the court you had to believe Trump was going to win to begin with. I didn't believe it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I'm trying to hear someone over there tell me why he's not qualified," Graham said of Gorsuch.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested Gorsuch should disregard Democrats' attempts to draw him out on individual topics.
"You're not a politician running for election, judge, as you know," Cornyn said. "I would encourage my colleagues to carefully consider the nominee on the merits and nothing else."
With his wife, Louise, sitting just behind him, and dozens of relatives, friends and professional associates nearby, Gorsuch made repeated references to judicial independence and humility.
"These days we sometimes hear judges cynically described as politicians in robes, seeking to enforce their own politics rather than striving to apply the law impartially. If I thought that were true, I'd hang up the robe. But I just don't think that's what a life in the law is about," Gorsuch said.
He made a brief reference to his mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, who had a controversial run as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency early in the Reagan administration. "She taught me that headlines are fleeting; courage lasts," Gorsuch said.
Several of the more liberal Senate Democrats have already announced plans to oppose Gorsuch and seek to block his nomination from coming to a final vote. But Republicans could respond to a Democratic delay by eliminating the 60-vote filibuster threshold now in place for Supreme Court nominations, and with it any Democratic leverage to influence the next Supreme Court fight.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The filibuster rule when invoked requires 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination, contrasted with the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.