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Trump’s Supreme Court Pick: Religious Freedom Defender Neil Gorsuch

Scholarly Denver judge who ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby would fill Scalia's seat as the court's only Protestant.
Trump’s Supreme Court Pick: Religious Freedom Defender Neil Gorsuch
Image: David Zalubowski / AP

President Donald Trump named Neil Gorsuch, a conservative, Ivy League-educated federal judge known for his way with words and defenses of religious freedom, as his Supreme Court nominee during a live broadcast Tuesday night.

A favorite pick among Christian conservatives, Gorsuch fulfills Trump’s promise to select a judge that “evangelicals, Christians will love” and who also stands a solid chance of scoring Senate approval. (Gorsuch’s federal appointment by President George W. Bush in 2006 was uncontroversial.)

“Judge Gorsuch’s combination of intellectual horsepower and work ethic has enabled him to excel academically at the world’s best universities, become a first-rate lawyer and judge, and develop remarkable verbal abilities,” said Robert Pushaw, a constitutional law expert and professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

An Episcopalian, Gorsuch accepted what he called “a most solemn assignment,” remarking “I am so thankful for my family, my friends, and my faith. These are the things that keep me grounded in life’s peaks and sustain me in its valleys.” If confirmed, Gorsuch would become the high court’s only Protestant justice.

Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore joined 60 evangelical leaders who signed a letter in support of Gorsuch and his judicial philosophy. Moore tweeted that he hoped Trump would select the Denver judge and applauded the appointment:

His career is one that exemplifies the very best of intellectually robust conservatism, judicial restraint and faithfulness to the Constitution…. I look forward to Judge Gorsuch's voice on the court for decades to come and pray that he will be an articulate and stalwart advocate for religious liberty and human dignity at all its stages.

Though Gorsuch has not ruled on Roe v. Wade, he calls for a consistent pro-life ethic surrounding end-of-life issues in his book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, and is expected to side against abortion.

“As a family ministry concerned with the sanctity of life, marriage, and religious freedom, we are optimistic that Judge Gorsuch will continue to protect our cherished liberties, and earn the entire country’s respect as a member of our nation’s highest court,” said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, in a statement. “It’s our hope that he will follow in the late Justice Scalia’s footsteps in boldly standing up to the whims of culture and have ‘the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.’”

National Right to Life noted Gorsuch’s dissent defending Utah’s attempt to curb Planned Parenthood funding. Others including Americans United for Life, Alliance Defending Freedom, and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) also praised his nomination. “He is decidedly pro-life and understands what it means to protect the constitutional freedoms afforded to all Americans,” said ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow.

As a judge in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion supporting Hobby Lobby’s contraception mandate exemption—a ruling ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. He also sided with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

“He has been strong on religious freedom,” said Thomas Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. The religious liberty scholar admired how well Gorsuch described the moral dilemma of those who objected to the mandate:

All of us face the problem of complicity. All of us must answer for ourselves whether and to what degree we are willing to be involved in the wrongdoing of others. For some, religion provides an essential source of guidance both about what constitutes wrongful conduct and the degree to which those who assist others in committing wrongful conduct themselves bear moral culpability.

Gorsuch also argued on behalf of public religious displays in dissenting opinions for cases involving Ten Commandments monuments and roadside crosses. “I expect he would be an articulate defender of religion in public life,” Berg said.

Gorsuch, a 49-year-old father of two, memorialized his predecessor Antonin Scalia as a “lion of the law.” Legal scholars agree with Trump that Gorsuch fits the Scalia mold, particularly on measures of “originalism, a strict reading of the Constitution as written, and textualism, an equally strict reading of statutes rather than legislative history,” USA Today wrote.

Last year, Gorsuch spoke of how he agreed with Scalia that judges should use “text, structure and history” to understand the law, and “not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best,” The Washington Postreported.

During Trump’s announcement, the president referenced the importance of this appointment to voters, and with Gorsuch’s selection, he has satisfied the hopes of many evangelicals for another conservative justice.

“I thank God that if confirmed, this administration will have delivered on one of its most critical campaign promises—to appoint a judge in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia,” said James Dobson, who belonged to Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

Princeton University professor Robert P. George praised his friend Gorsuch as a finalist on Trump’s short list last week, saying:

He is intellectually extremely gifted and is deeply committed to the (actual) Constitution and the rule of law. He will not manufacture “rights” or read things into the Constitution that aren't there or read things out of the Constitution that are.

Despite comparisons to Scalia, those who know Gorsuch point out how his temperament differs from his predecessor.

“I am struck by Judge Gorsuch's integrity, kindness, and fairness. I saw sensitivity in the way he treated students, and I believe that his legal opinions—even those with which I disagree—often betray the same,” said University of Colorado Law School’s Dayna Bowen Matthew, who hired Gorsuch as an adjunct professor. “I saw a meticulous respect for the contrary views of others in his scholarly writing, and yet I have long admired the genuine strength of Judge Gorsuch's deep convictions, which he holds without a hint of being an ideologue.”

Matthew referenced God’s heart for the poor, prisoners, and justice for the oppressed, as recounted in Scripture and reflected in Gorsuch’s judicial writings, including opinions on behalf of prisioners with disabilities and two victims claiming sexual harrassment.

Prior to his judicial appointment by Bush, Gorsuch held a high-ranking Justice Department position and clerked for prominant conservative judges including Judge David Sentelle of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals as well as Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court, SCOTUSBlog wrote.

He attended Columbia, Harvard, and Oxford universities, and his mother was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the first female head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gorsuch and his wife, Louise, belong to an Episcopal church in Boulder, Colorado. They have two teenage girls.

“In my one extended encounter with Judge Gorsuch, he struck me as not only brilliant but humble, gracious, and devoted to his wife and daughters,” Pushaw said.

CT featured a tribute to Scalia, a “devout Christian, worldly judge,” following his death last February.

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