The Senate confirmed Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court Friday, elevating a youthful conservative jurist to the nation’s highest tribunal who could shape American jurisprudence for decades.
The 54-45 vote hewed closely to party lines. Three Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Donnelly, joined all 52 Republicans in voting for Gorsuch’s confirmation. The vote followed Thursday’s procedural decision by the Senate’s Republican majority to abolish the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture on Supreme Court nominees, colloquially known as the “nuclear option.”
Republican veterans of judicial confirmations trumpeted the confirmation as a triumph of the Scalia legacy.
“Throughout his career, Judge Gorsuch has demonstrated his commitment to judicial independence and to deciding cases according to the law instead of political preferences,” said Leonard Leo, who advises President Donald Trump on judicial confirmations, in a statement to reporters. “I applaud President Trump for choosing such an outstanding nominee, and Leader McConnell and his colleagues for defeating an unprecedented partisan filibuster.”
“A year ago we lost Justice Scalia, a giant, and today we are one step closer to seeing the preservation of his legacy on the Court,” he added.
The day bursts with historical and political implications for all three branches of government. Gorsuch’s confirmation marks the first significant domestic political achievement of Donald Trump’s young presidency, still reeling from a failed vote in the House of Representatives on health care reform, and a bevy of court orders enjoining enforcement of his executive orders on refugees and migrants. His first Supreme Court appointment is an early hallmark of the Trump legacy, and marks the fruition of a central campaign pledge.
The White House called the confirmation a victory for the rule of law and vigorous defense of the Constitution.
“Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation process was one of the most transparent and accessible in history, and his judicial temperament, exceptional intellect, unparalleled integrity, and record of independence makes him the perfect choice to serve on the Nation’s highest court,” Trump said in a statement. “As a deep believer in the rule of law, Judge Gorsuch will serve the American people with distinction as he continues to faithfully and vigorously defend our Constitution.”
In Congress, thoughts quickly turned to the prospect of another vacancy on the high court. Three of the court’s justices are at least 78 years old, while speculation abounds in media that the administration has quietly encouraged Justice Anthony Kennedy to retire. The stakes attending these departures make Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s decision to lead a filibuster of the Gorsuch nomination, effectively triggering the nuclear option, all the more surprising.
In choosing this course, Schumer and the Democratic caucus assume Trump will be a one-term president, Republicans will lose control of the Senate, and no further vacancies will occur in the coming years. Should even one of these propositions fail, Schumer may be responsible for a cataclysmic, generational defeat for the Democratic party.
All this while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is vindicated in his own bullishness. His decision to block Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination for nearly a year appeared hopeless and impractical as candidate-Trump stumbled through underwhelming debate performances, bad polls, and a bombshell Access Hollywood tape. Today’s vote was as much a success for the majority leader as it was for the president.
Though his pending investiture will restore the status quo ante of Feb. 2016, the arrival of a new justice is sure to affect the direction of the Court to some extent. He arrives as a growing number of justices appear ready to revisit core rulings of administrative law, the body of cases governing federal agency power. Gorsuch’s record suggests he is intensely interested in expanding judicial oversight of agency behavior, and arrives at a moment when his impact in this area could be at its maximum.
He also arrives as the Court is prepared to adjudicate a marquee religious liberty case. The Supreme Court will decided whether the Constitution allows state government to exclude churches and religious organizations — including hospitals and schools — from neutral, secular aid programs later this month. The justices took the case in Jan. 2016, just week’s before Scalia’s death, but have delayed arguments for months, in hopes a ninth justice would soon join them. Gorsuch is likely to cast the dispositive vote in a case almost sure to divide the court along ideological lines.
Gorsuch will officially become an associate justice of the Supreme Court with President Trump’s appointment, which could come as soon as today. He will be formally invested Monday by Chief Justice John Roberts during a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. A public event at the White House with Justice Anthony Kennedy will follow.
Gorsuch clerked for Kennedy in 1993. He will be the first justice to serve concurrently with a justice for whom he clerked.
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