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Who Is Judge Gorsuch? Clues In Key Rulings

Donald Trump has shaken up Washington but Judge Neil Gorsuch, the president's Supreme Court pick, is the epitome of a traditional candidate.
Image: Neil Gorsuch
Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch arrives for a meeting on Capitol Hill on Feb. 9.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Donald Trump has shaken up Washington in many ways but Judge Neil Gorsuch, the president's Supreme Court pick, is the epitome of a traditional candidate.

At just 49-years-old, his decisions are likely to affect us for many years to come. And yet most of us know very little about him — his core values, what shaped his thinking about the law, and what types of rulings we are likely to see if he joins the Supreme Court.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge who sits in Colorado is a second-generation federal employee. His mother ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for President Ronald Reagan, but resigned after just two years over a scandal and became the first Cabinet-level official to be held in contempt of Congress.

For the then-15-year-old Gorsuch, the episode was a rude awakening to the rough and tumble world of politics. According to his mother’s memoir, "Are You Tough Enough: An Insider's View of Washington Power Politics," she recounted how her son urged her to fight.

"You didn't do anything wrong...he said, adding...You only did what the president ordered. Why are you quitting? You raised me not to be a quitter,” Gorsuch told his mother years ago.

The family setback did not derail his own career. Gorsuch attended Harvard Law School, as did Barack Obama and five other members of the current Supreme Court. He clerked at the Supreme Court, worked in high-profile legal positions at a corporate law firm and as deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice. In 2006, he nabbed a prestigious judicial appointment — federal appellate judge — from President George Bush.

While described as erudite, learning the law is not Gorsuch's only passion. He is known as an avid fly fisherman and talented skier. Sometimes, his career and his hobbies have intersected. He once went fly-fishing with Justice Antonin Scalia, the deceased Conservative icon whose seat Gorsuch is slated to take if confirmed. In a lecture at Case Western Reserve University School of Law last year, Gorsuch recounted how he wept upon getting a phone alert while skiing on a mountaintop that his intellectual hero had suddenly died.

"I was taking a breather in the middle of a ski run with little on my mind but the next mogul field when my phone rang with the news,” Gorsuch remembered. "I couldn't see the rest of the way down the mountain for the tears."

Some may argue that same mountain spirit — a rugged sense of individualism — infuses his opinions. Such was case, where he dissented in United States v. Carloss, arguing police had no right to ignore multiple "no trespass signs" and knock on the defendant’s front door without a warrant — Gorsuch joked that police made a mockery of home-owner rights.

The “homeowner may post as many No Trespass signs as she wishes,” he wrote. “She might add a wall or medieval-style moat, too. Maybe razor wire and battlements and mantraps beside. Even that isn’t enough to revoke the state’s right to enter…”

Gorsuch’s concern that no barrier can stop police who do not respect people's constitutional rights reflects his skepticism about government power. That skepticism also informed his criticism of police who arrested an unruly teenager and took him away from his school in handcuffs in A.M vs. Holmes. He said the treatment of the 13-year-old was illegal, writing that “…arresting a now compliant class clown for burping was going a step too far."

Related: Seven players to watch during the Gorsuch confirmation hearings

While some of his legal opinions favor the underdog, critics say Gorsuch's view of federal power could hobble federal administrators. White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon says he wants to dismantle the administrative state, and some of Gorsuch’s strongest dissents argue power should be stripped away from agencies. Last August, in Gutierrez-Brisuela v. Lynch, an immigration case, he wrote a concurrence criticizing a legal principle that says courts should to defer to federal agencies’ rulemaking authority.

There’s also the Hobby Lobby case, intertwining Obamacare and religion, in one of the most high-profile cases Gorsuch has ruled on.

Conservatives’ cheered Gorsuch’s 2013 10th Circuit concurring opinion in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, where he argued that even if Obamacare was legal, the owners of some corporations could rely on their own religious beliefs to deny women employees contraception coverage.

The mild-mannered judge wrote that providing legal birth control to female employees could be like assisting others in evil, writing that religion helps people decide "...the degree to which those who assist others in committing wrongful conduct themselves bear moral culpability."

Gorsuch has never directly ruled on abortion but his doctoral thesis argues euthanasia and assisted suicide should be outlawed, and may provide some clues about his feelings toward Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark court decision allowing women the right to an abortion.

“The intentional taking of a human life by private persons is always wrong,” he wrote.

The Trump administration’s aggressive executive action on immigration in the name of national security also begs the question: How will Gorsuch rule on such matters? But his record on national security and immigration is sparse. Many of the immigration cases involve people challenging their prison sentences upon returning to the U.S. illegally after they were deported. But his record is mixed-having taken the sides of both immigrants and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

He’s said very little publicly about the administration’s showdown with federal courts over his executive orders banning immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. His spokesperson confirmed that he told Sen. Richard Blumenthal in a private that Trump’s tweet about the “so-called judge” was “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

Finally, there are decisions that cut to the heart of the economic angst in the country — like the story of Alphonse Maddin, who was stuck in a broke down truck in subzero weather, waiting for his employer's repairman to show up.

After two hours with no help and losing feeling in his limbs, he left the truck to get help. The company fired him for abandoning company property, and he sued. Gorsuch backed the corporation over the freezing driver, writing simply that the law does not give "employees the right to operate their vehicles in ways their employers forbid."

The employee's whole point was the employer's vehicle wasn't operating at all, and he didn’t want to choose between losing his job and freezing to death.

Although Gorsuch may face opposition at his hearings this week from Democrats whose views do not align with his more conservative ones, he is widely known by both parties as a universally respected jurist with well-written opinions. One question that both Democrats and Republicans will be trying to ascertain: How flexible is Judge Gorsuch's jurisprudence and will he continue in the same vein if he joins the Supreme Court?