Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch stresses ‘open mind’ on rulings

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Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch batted away Democrats’ efforts Tuesday to get him to reveal his views on abortion, guns and other controversial issues, insisting he keeps “an open mind for the entire process” when he issues rulings.

Gorsuch answered both friendly questions from majority Republicans and more probing questions from Democrats the same way, maintaining what he described as a rigid neutrality that is required of a judge.

“My personal views, I tell you, Mr. Chairman, are over here. I leave those at home,” Gorsuch said in response to a question from Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Questioned by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California about the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling affirming the right of people to keep guns in their homes for self-defense — District of Columbia v. Heller — Gorsuch said, “Whatever is in Heller is the law and I follow the law. … It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing.”

As a long day of questioning wore on, senators and Gorsuch engaged in a routine well-established in recent confirmation hearings. The nominee resists all requests to say how he feels about Supreme Court decisions, even as he is asked about them again and again.

Gorsuch, nominated by new President Donald Trump, tried to allay Democrats’ worries about his impartiality by saying he keeps an open mind, consistent with one of his mentors.

“I decide cases,” not political issues, he said, invoking former Justice Byron White. “It’s a pretty good philosophy for a judge.”

Gorsuch said he has not been asked since his nomination to make promises about future rulings.

“I don’t believe in litmus tests for judges,” he said. “No one in that process asked me for any commitments.”

Republicans are unanimously supporting Gorsuch, and they asked supportive questions as he appeared for a second day before the committee. But Democrats made clear on the first day that they were in no mood to “rubber stamp a nominee selected by extreme interest groups and nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes,” as Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont put it.

Gorsuch himself sought to emphasize his strong belief in the separation of powers in his opening statement Monday, pledging to be independent or “hang up the robe.” Seeking 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 said he has ruled both for and against disabled students, prisoners and workers alleging civil rights violations.

A Supreme Court confirmation hearing is a major occasion on Capitol Hill, but Monday’s was overshadowed by a separate event in the Capitol complex. On the House side, FBI Director James Comey testified 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 allegations 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.

For their part, Republicans derided the Democrats’ strategy.

“The nominee before us today is not President Trump,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “The nominee before us today is not Leader McConnell,” the Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, who engineered a 10-month blockade of Obama’s court pick, Judge Merrick Garland, last year.

Justice Antonin Scalia died last February and Republicans insisted that the next president would fill the court vacancy.

Democrats remain incensed over Garland’s treatment, and are facing pressures from liberal voters and interest groups to oppose Gorsuch, but he seems all but certain to be confirmed.

Seeming to acknowledge that outcome, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., remarked to Gorsuch: “You’re going to have your hands full with this president. He’s going to keep you busy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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