Trump's Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch said he would have no trouble ruling against the president

WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court pick, said on Tuesday he would have no trouble ruling against the president as he tried to stake out his independence amid concerns by Democrats that he would be beholden to the man who nominated him.

With the ideological balance of the Supreme Court at stake, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the second day of its confirmation hearing for Gorsuch, a conservative federal appeals court judge from Colorado. Republicans, who control Congress, have praised Gorsuch, 49, as highly qualified for a lifetime appointment as a justice while Democrats have questioned his suitability.

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Chuck Grassley, the panel's Republican chairman, asked Gorsuch "whether you'd have any trouble ruling against a president who appointed you."

"That's a softball, Mr. Chairman," Gorsuch said. "I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party, other than based on what the law and facts in the particular case require. And I'm heartened by the support I have received from people who recognize that there's no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country."

MORE: See Gorsuch's body language at his hearing

Trump has repeatedly assailed the judiciary both as a candidate and since taking office on Jan. 20. Trump condemned federal judges who have put on hold his two executive orders to ban the entry into the United States of people from several Muslim-majority countries.

"A good judge doesn't give a whit about politics or the political implications of his or her decision, (and) decides where the law takes him or her fearlessly," Gorsuch added.

In a Twitter post during the hearing on Tuesday, Trump praised Gorsuch as "the kind of judge we need" for the high court.


If Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative court majority. The seat has been vacant for 13 months, since the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia. Democrats have slim chances of blocking his nomination in the Republican-led Senate.

Senate Democrats and liberal activists have criticized Trump for promising to nominate a jurist who would pass an anti-abortion "litmus test." Gorsuch said no one in the nomination process ever asked him for commitments or promises on how he would rule in any case.

"I have offered no promises on how I'd rule in any case to anyone. And I don't think it's appropriate for a judge to do so, no matter who's doing the asking," Gorsuch told the committee.

Gorsuch said Supreme Court precedents deserve respect, even as he sidestepped answering whether he thought a series of contentious cases from the past had been decided correctly. He said it would be "beginning of the end" of the independent judiciary if judges had to indicate how they would rule in future cases.

Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, asked Gorsuch about the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 ruling in the case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States. Many conservatives want that ruling overturned.

Feinstein asked Gorsuch whether that ruling should be considered a "super precedent" because its central holding has been upheld in subsequent cases. "It has been reaffirmed many times," Gorsuch responded, although he offered no view on whether it was properly decided.

'A GOOD JUDGE'

"A good judge will consider it as precedent of the United States Supreme Court worthy of treatment of precedent like any other," he added.

"I'm not in a position to tell you whether I personally like or dislike a precedent. That's not relevant to my job," he added.

Gorsuch also declined to offer his view on whether cases on gun rights, the right to a lawyer in a criminal case, religious rights and the ruling tipping the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush were correctly decided.

Like previous Supreme Court nominees appointed by Republicans and Democrats, Gorsuch kept a lot of questions at arm's length, leaving Feinstein sounding exasperated.

"Can you do a 'yes' or 'no'?" Feinstein asked as she sought an answer.

"I wish I could," Gorsuch replied.

"I wish you could, too," Feinstein said.

Grassley said Tuesday's session could last 10 hours, with all the committee members getting to question him.

Gorsuch hesitated when Feinstein asked him about his work on detainee issues and torture while working in Bush's Justice Department in 2005. She said that in a document showing a set of talking points from November 2005 asking whether aggressive interrogation techniques yielded any valuable information, Gorsuch had written in the margin, "Yes."

She asked Gorsuch what information he had that aggressive interrogation techniques were effective. "I have to see the document, I don't recall," Gorsuch said, his brow furrowed.

Pressing a frequent Democratic concern that Gorsuch favors corporate interests, Feinstein mentioned some of his prior opinions, asking, "How do we have confidence in you that you won't just be for the big corporations, that you will be for the little man?"

Gorsuch said such decisions are just a small proportion of his work, saying he has often ruled for the "little guy."

Answering a later question from Republican Orrin Hatch, Gorsuch said, "A judge is there to make sure that every person, poor or rich, mighty or meek, gets equal protection of the law."

Grassley said on Monday the committee is likely to vote on the nomination on April 3, with the full Senate vote likely soon after. The hearing could last four days.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Will Dunham)