Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch presented himself as a mainstream jurist who has spent his career seeking agreement as his highly anticipated confirmation hearing kicked off Monday.
“In the West we listen to one another respectfully, we tolerate and cherish different points of view, and we seek consensus whenever we can,” Gorsuch said in his opening statement. “My law clerks tell me that 97 percent of the 2,700 cases I’ve decided were decided unanimously. And that I have been in the majority 99 percent of the time.”
President Donald Trump’s nominee spent most of the first day of his confirmation listening to committee members deliver their own statements in what began the final chapter in the battle to fill the seat vacated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch’s judicial record was mostly an afterthought as Democrats focused on the Republican-led Senate's refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's Supreme Court pick, and the host of controversial things the president has done and said.
"I just want to say I am deeply disappointed that it's under these circumstances that we begin our hearings. Merrick Garland was widely regarded as a mainstream moderate nominee," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cali., the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., read off a reported quote from White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus praising Gorsuch as a nominee who "represents the type of judge that has the vision of Donald Trump."
"I want to hear from you why Mr. Priebus would say that," Durbin said. "Most Americans question whether we need a Supreme Court justice with the vision of Donald Trump."
The Supreme Court vacancy left after Scalia's death more than a year ago was a pivotal issue in the 2016 presidential contests. President Donald Trump won 56 percent of voters who said the open seat on the nation's highest court was important, according to national exit polls.
Gorsuch, a federal judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, is a well-regarded jurist who was easily confirmed eight years ago after being nominated by President George W. Bush.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Gorsuch’s home state of Colorado helped introduce the nominee and urged his colleague’s not to take their frustrations over the Garland blockade out on Gorsuch.
“I am not naive about the reasons the Senate majority denied Judge Garland a hearing and a vote...And it is tempting to deny Judge Gorsuch a fair hearing because of the Senate’s prior failure. But, Mr. Chairman, two wrongs never make a right,” Bennet said.
Outside groups on both sides have waged fierce campaigns to influence members on the closely watched Gorsuch vote. Liberal groups have sent warning shots to Democrats who have signaled a willingness to consider approving Gorsuch, while conservative groups have tried to target Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in states won by Trump.
"Something is seriously wrong when the confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice resembles an election campaign for political office," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pointed to his own vote to approve Obama nominated Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to argue that nominees should be simply be judged on whether they are qualified.
"What happened between now and then, how did we go from being able to being able to understand that Scalia was a well-qualified conservative and [Judge Ruth Bader] Ginsberg was a well-qualified liberal?" Graham said. "I don't know how we got there, but I hope we turn around and go back. Because what we're doing is going to tear apart the judiciary."
Even with unified opposition, however, Democrats are unlikely to stop Gorush from ultimately being confirmed. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he intends Trump's pick will be confirmed before the Senate goes on break April 8.