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Trump Supreme Court Pick Neil Gorsuch Takes Place On High Court Bench

by Pete Williams /
FILE: U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch is sworn in to testify at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017.James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

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Neil Gorsuch took his place on the Supreme Court bench Monday, diving right in to the court's business and peppering the lawyers with questions during courtroom argument.

Sworn in a week earlier, President Donald Trump's pick arrived just in time to participate in the final two weeks of oral argument in the current term. As is the tradition in an institution that operates on seniority, he was seated at the end of the bench on the left side of Chief Justice John Roberts, who sits at the center.

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"It gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and my colleagues to welcome Justice Gorsuch as the 101st associate justice of this court," Roberts said in very brief remarks as the court was called to order at 10 a.m. "We wish you a long and happy career in our common cause."

In response Gorsuch said, "Thank you for the warm welcome I have received."

A more elaborate investiture ceremony will be conducted in the weeks to come.

His arrival with a conservative record as a judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver restores the ideological makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court. He fills the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia 14 months ago, once again giving the court's generally conservative justices a five-to-four majority.

Related: Supreme Court Scheduled to Hear Important Freedom of Religion Dispute

None of Monday's cases were among the term's blockbusters. They were typical of the court's diet of complex issues of federal law — the timing of shareholder class action lawsuits, the appropriate judicial forum for federal worker complaints, and the rules for joining a lawsuit filed by someone else.

Justice Gorsuch remained in his seat as the court turned to the second case of the day, involving when a person interested in the outcome of a case can be added as a party to proceedings. One of the lawyers appearing before the court in that case, Neal Katyal, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Gorsuch's nomination.

Katyal's representation of one side in the case presented Gorsuch with a decision about whether to recuse, or sit the case out. But as expected, he remained on the bench. Justices often hear cases argued by their former law clerks or people from law firms where they once worked.

The court's newest justice showed no freshman anxiety Monday, jumping into the questioning barely 15 minutes after the first argument began. He asked more than two dozen questions and said at one point, “I'm sorry for taking up so much time, I apologize.”

Gorsuch was sworn in April 10, and the other eight justices met three days later in their regular private conference to discuss which cases to hear next term. The court said he did not take part in that discussion, preferring to concentrate on the 13 cases to be argued by April 26.

His presence on the court may make the difference in one of the most significant legal showdowns over religious rights in decades.

On Wednesday, the court is scheduled to hear a claim that Missouri discriminated against a Lutheran church by leaving its preschool out of a program to improve school playgrounds. Missouri's constitution says no state money can ever be spent to aid a church.

The church says the state was engaging in anti-religious discrimination. As a federal Judge, Gorsuch was sympathetic to claims of religious discrimination.

"It was Justice Gorsuch's views on religious liberty that might have been the most persuasive thing to conservative advocates when he was nominated. So it would be a surprise if he weren't in favor of the interests of the church in this case," said Tom Goldstein, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who argues frequently before the court.

But the case may fizzle out. Late last week, Missouri's newly elected governor said the state will no longer automatically turn down requests for money from churches. The court ordered lawyers for both sides to submit letters by noon Tuesday with their views on what effect the governor's change in policy should have on the case.

The policy change would appear to give the church what it wanted — a chance to obtain a state grant.

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