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Democrats Accuse Gorsuch of Skirting Major Legal Questions at SCOTUS Confirmation

Democrats say President Donald Trump’s pick for the supreme court sidestepped questions about his opinions on the most contentious legal issues.
Image: Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing For Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: Judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2017 in Washington. Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill the vacancy left on the court by the February 2016 death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Two days of testimony from Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch left Senate Democrats with little more than frustrations as President Donald Trump’s pick for the high court carefully sidestepped questions about his own opinions on the nation’s most contentious legal issues.

“I wish that I could say that this hearing has been illuminating for what was said by you,” Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono told Gorsuch Tuesday after nearly 20 hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Instead I’m left to judge your nomination largely on the basis of what you refuse to say."

Democrats, so far divided on how intensely to oppose Gorsuch, failed to land a major blow to the nominee as he carefully skirts questions about Supreme Court precedent and Trump's most controversial actions and statements. Gorsuch’s role in the hearings is now over as the high-profile panel prepares to hear from witnesses on Thursday.

"You have been very much able to avoid any specificity like no one I have ever seen before," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said. "And maybe that's a virtue, I don't know. But for us on this side, knowing where you stand on major questions of the day is really important to vote aye."

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge repeatedly told members of the committee he leaves his personal opinions “at home,” and at one point called it "grossly improper" for him to speculate about how he would rule on Trump's controversial travel restrictions from six-Muslim majority countries. The order has been blocked by a federal judge and could end up before the Supreme Court.

Gorsuch's hesitations did not slow Democrats from prodding him on a number of key rulings involving civil and reproductive rights. And while Gorsuch rattled off various merits of the rulings, he would consistently stopped short of delivering his own opinions on the decisions.

"For a judge to start tipping his or her hand about whether they like or dislike this or that precedent would send the wrong signal," Gorsuch said. "It would send the signal to the American people that the judge's personal views has something to do with the judge's job."

Throughout his two days of testimony, Gorsuch sought to portray himself as an independent judge beholden to the president who nominated him. He assured lawmakers he made no promises to the Trump administration in exchange for his nomination and said he would have “walked out the door” if asked to commit to voting against Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed a woman's right to an abortion.

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Republicans too have grown increasingly frustrated watching their Democratic colleagues on the high-profile panel grill Gorsuch.

"If we're going to vote against a nominee because they won't tell us things that we want to hear about issues important to us, then the whole nominating process has become a joke," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. He reminded the committee the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat Gorsuch would fill, got 98 votes and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received 96 ayes.

"What's happened? Did the Constitution change? I don't think so. I think politics has changed," Graham said.

One of the most noteworthy moments of the three days of hearings came late Tuesday when Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Gorsuch about Trump’s reaction to judges' opposition to his executive orders. For the first time publicly, Gorsuch said Tuesday it is "disheartening" and "demoralizing" for anyone — including the president — to criticize the integrity of the judiciary.

"Anyone including the president of the United States?" Blumenthal asked.

"Anyone is anyone," Gorsuch said.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer pushed back on the notion Gorsuch was criticizing Trump, saying the judge was speaking broadly and did not mention any one person. The answer did come, however, in response to a question about Trump.

“It’s a little rich for them to be maligning a federal judge and at the same time giving speeches about how unacceptable it is for anyone to criticize a federal judge,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said after listing off Democratic criticisms of Gorsuch.

Democrats, largely unsure of how vigorously to oppose Gorsuch, have shifted their focus on delaying a vote on the nominee due to the FBI's investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

"You can bet that if the shoe was on the other foot — and a Democratic president was under investigation by the FBI — that Republicans would be howling at the moon about filling a Supreme Court seat in such circumstances," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "It is unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment while this big great grey cloud of an FBI investigation hangs over the presidency."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., echoed that call:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed that Gorsuch will be confirmed before the Senate goes on Easter recess on April 8. Eight Democrats will be needed to side with a unified Republican majority to advance Gorsuch's nomination to a final vote. However, McConnell has not ruled out the possibility of using the so-called "nuclear-option," which would allow the nomination to advance with a simple majority if Democrats attempt to filibuster the vote.