Vote to take place at end of month
The hearing process for the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court, a process which is sure to be contentious and to once again highlight the bitter political divisions of the past year, will begin on March 20. Named by President Donald Trump to fill the nearly 400-day vacancy left by Antonin Scalia’s death last year, Judge Gorsuch is likely to be confirmed but may have a rocky path to the Supreme Court seat.
Gorsuch, in any other year, would likely be a less controversial pick for the Supreme Court. He has academic credentials from Columbia, Harvard, and Oxford, and was a clerk for several prominent judges, including current Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He has been celebrated as a brilliant legalist and writer. Judge Gorsuch has an extensive judicial background, and even before his nomination he drew favorable comparisons to the late Justice Scalia. Gorsuch is widely regarded as a critical and impartial interpreter of the law, described recently as “very smart, articulate, and polite, with superb judicial demeanor” by Senator Chuck Schumer of the Democratic leadership.
In the context of Trump’s upset victory in November and newly begun presidency, however, Gorsuch’s nomination process is likely to be a bumpy road, given the current political state of affairs. Beginning with Rex Tillerson, followed by Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions, the president’s picks for the nation’s highest offices have endured a storm of criticism and outrage from many liberal groups. Trump is not immune from criticism from the right, however, with Republicans such as Senator John McCain continuing to call out President Trump on foreign policy and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins voting against now-Secretary DeVos’ confirmation.
When Justice Scalia passed away in February of 2016, most did not expect the year-long struggle between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Obama administration. McConnell refused Obama nominee Judge Merrick Garland a hearing last spring, citing the precedent of departing presidents deferring to their successor. This infuriated many Democrats, who have now vowed to oppose anyone else.
Though Gorsuch may be viewed favorably by both sides, his association with the president may make it difficult to win blue votes. Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate, but would need 60 to overcome a potential Democrat filibuster. If Gorsuch is opposed by enough Democratic senators, the President has encouraged McConnell to invoke the so-called “nuclear option,” which would abolish the filibuster for Supreme Court votes.
Among others, two Democratic Senators remain question marks: Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Donnelly, a Notre Dame undergraduate and Law School alumnus, represents a red state (which is notable given Mike Pence’s ascendency from Governor to Vice President), and Manchin is a centrist Democrat in a red-swing state. Both vote with Republicans on several issues; Donnelly favors increased defense spending and sides with conservative foreign policy, and Manchin opposes higher gun restrictions and environmental regulations such as those against the Keystone Pipeline. Both are pro-life. Manchin was the only Democrat to vote in confirmation of cabinet members Rex Tillerson, Steve Mnuchin, and Jeff Sessions, and is known for working well with both sides of the aisle, all of which indicates he could be open to supporting Gorsuch. Donnelly has been specifically lobbied by pro-life advocacy groups such as the D.C.-based Susan B. Anthony List, who are pressuring him to confirm Gorsuch given his commitment to the defense of life and the importance of the Supreme Court in potentially overturning Roe v. Wade.
Indiana Right to Life and related groups have held rallies around the state encouraging Donnelly to support the judge. Notre Dame Right to Life wrote an open letter to the Senator urging him to consider Gorsuch’s respect for life as a reason to confirm him, in light of the shared mission of the university and of Donnelly himself to defend life. Up for reelection in 2018 in a strong Republican state, Donnelly could decide to cast his vote to confirm based on Gorsuch’s social conservatism.
The Democratic leadership may plan to drag the fight out, still stinging from the Garland defeat. A Supreme Court justice is one of the most significant decisions a president can make and could have the longest-lasting impact. At 49 years old, Judge Gorsuch would likely be on the nation’s highest judiciary platform for decades to come, and his nomination is arguably the most important battle so far for the Trump administration.
John Paul Ferguson is a freshman living Fisher Hall and studying PLS. You can often find him reading poetry in a tree by St. Mary’s Lake. You can contact him at email@example.com.