At his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Neil Gorsuch pitched himself as a reasonable jurist who would do his best to uphold the rule of law without any bias.
"Sitting here, I am acutely aware of my own imperfections," the federal appeals court judge told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. "But I pledge to each of you and to the American people that, if confirmed, I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of our great nation."
The 49-year-old, who was nominated by President Trump in January to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia, did his best to strike a chord of unity in his testimony.
But his comments followed four hours of opening statements from the committee members in which Democrats made clear they believed it was not Gorsuch who should be sitting before them, but President Barack Obama's original nominee, Merrick Garland.
The federal judge appeared nonplussed by the Democrats' comments and the perpetual Garland shadow that hung over the first day of testimony. He will take questions from the committee on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by testimony from expert witnesses.
Gorsuch touted his successful record as a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that "97 percent of the 2,700 cases I've decided were decided unanimously — and that I've been in the majority 99 percent of the time."
He also underscored his commitment to the separation of powers, stating, "It is for this body, the people's representatives, to make new laws, for the executive to ensure those laws are faithfully enforced and for neutral and independent judges to apply the law in the people's disputes."
He added: "If judges were just secret legislators, declaring not what the law is but what they would like it to be, the very idea of a government by the people and for the people would be at risk."
In their opening remarks, Republicans on the committee heaped plenty of praise on the federal judge.
"His grasp on the separation of powers — including judicial independence — enlivens his body of work," committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said.
Democrats, meanwhile, repeatedly invoked Garland, who was denied a hearing by Senate Republicans during an election year after Scalia's death in February 2016.
"I am deeply disappointed that it is under these circumstances that we begin these hearings," said Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
She went on to say that Democrats would give Gorsuch a courtesy that Senate Republicans did not give Garland: a fair hearing.
"Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable mainstream conservative or is he not," Feinstein continued. She then outlined her concerns with some of Gorsuch's past writings that hinted he opposed Roe v. Wade, calling the case a "super precedent" that legalized abortion and gave women a right to privacy.
The Colorado judge was introduced, as is customary, by his home state's senators. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner underscored that Gorsuch was not "an activist judge" and was well-qualified to serve on the nation's highest court.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado also had words of praise for Gorsuch, though he, too, decried Senate Republicans' treatment of Garland, calling it "an embarrassment to this body that will be recorded in history." Yet he, like Feinstein, argued that "two wrongs never make a right" and said Gorsuch should get a fair hearing.
Former Obama administration acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, a Georgetown Law professor, also spoke in support of Gorsuch, calling him a "first-rate intellect and a fair and decent man" who had a "dedication to the rule of law."
But Katyal also bemoaned the circumstances under which he was nominated, calling it "a tragedy of national proportions that Merrick Garland does not sit on the court."
Overall, the first day of testimony underscored that the hearings would remain sharply divided along party lines, with each senator accusing the opposing side of political posturing.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that the Senate owes a president discretion in picking his judicial nominees and pointed out that Gorsuch had received the highest rating possible from the American Bar Association, the "gold standard" in vetting judicial nominees.
Hatch blasted Democrats for wanting Gorsuch to outline how he would vote on certain cases, saying that to them, "judicial independence requires he be beholden to them and [their] political agenda" on issues like abortion.
Other Republicans argued that Gorsuch should be judged on his own merits, legal writings and decisions — not compared to the man who nominated him.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said, "The nominee before us today is not President Trump," nor is he Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Judge Garland.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joked that he was certainly no fan of Trump during the campaign and made the case that Republicans didn't blockade Gorsuch's nomination to allow Trump to make a nomination because most of them didn't believe Trump would win.
"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.
The South Carolina Republican pointed out that he had voted to confirm President Obama's two Supreme Court nominees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, because they were qualified for the bench and not because he agreed with their politics. Graham urged his Democratic colleagues to give Gorsuch the same deference.
"I'm dying to hear someone over there tell me why [Gorsuch] is not qualified to be sitting here," Graham said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz claimed in his comments that Gorsuch's nomination carried with it a "superlegitimacy" because Trump made the Supreme Court vacancy a major campaign issue.
Still, Democrats devoted many of their opening statements to pushing back against the so-called Republican obstructionism that they believe caused Scalia's seat to remain vacant for more than a year.
"The Judiciary Committee once stood against a court-packing scheme that would have eroded judicial independence. That was a proud moment. Now, Republicans on this committee are guilty of their own 'court unpacking scheme,'" said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "The blockade of Chief Judge Merrick Garland was never grounded in principle or precedent." Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Watch Day 1 Of Judge Neil Gorsuch's Confirmation Hearing
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