In big win for Trump, Senate approves his conservative court pick Neil Gorsuch

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WASHINGTON, April 7 (Reuters) - The Republican-led Senate on Friday gave Donald Trump the biggest triumph of his young presidency, confirming his Supreme Court nominee over stout Democratic opposition and restoring a conservative majority on the highest U.S. judicial body.

The Senate, which last year refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nominee to the court, voted 54-45 to approve Republican Trump's pick, Colorado-based federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, to the lifetime job. Three Democrats joined the Republicans in voting for Gorsuch.

Gorsuch's confirmation ends the longest Supreme Court vacancy since 1862 during the American Civil War, with the court down a justice for almost 14 months since long-serving conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, 2016.

Where SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch stands on key issues

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Where SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch stands on key issues
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Where SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch stands on key issues

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch looks on as Senate Judiciary Committee. President Donald Trump has nominated Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to fill the seat that had left vacant with the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Abortion

Gorsuch has never directly ruled on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the U.S., but he was pressed on the landmark ruling during his Senate confirmation hearing. 

When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Gorsuch what he would have done if President Trump asked him to overturn Roe v. Wade, the judge responded, "I would have walked out the door. It's not what judges do. I don't do it at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue and they shouldn't do it at this end either, respectfully."

Some refer to passages from a book Gorsuch wrote on assisted suicide. In the book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Gorsuch wrote, "The idea that all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong."

(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Second Amendment

Gorsuch has never directly ruled on the Second Amendment. However, during his confirmation hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) questioned Gorsuch on District of Columbia v. Heller -- a landmark ruling that overturned a ban on handguns and certain requirements when storing guns in Washington D.C. 

Gorsuch offered limited responses to Feinstein's questioning, but did conclude that Heller was the "law of the land." 

(REUTERS/John Sommers II/File Photo)

Religion

Gorsuch is widely regarded as a strong proponent of religious liberty.

In a landmark ruling, Gorsuch sided with an employer in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case in 2013, making it legal for a non-profit organization to deny employees access to contraceptives if it goes against their religious beliefs. The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, where it was also ruled in the favor of Hobby Lobby. 

In another case, Gorsuch ruled in favor of a Wyoming inmate. The ruling allowed the inmate to use a prison yard sweat lodge, that he had previously been denied access to, for Native American religious worship.

(Getty)

Immigration

Gorsuch has not hinted to how he feels about President Trump's proposed travel ban, and many experts are split on how the SCOTUS nominee would vote on the executive order that bans immigrants from six majority-Muslim countries. The ban is currently suspended following rulings by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland. 

Gorsuch has sided with immigrants in past cases, and as Cornell University constitutional law professor Michael Dorf noted to the Denver Post -- "Gorsuch’s sympathy for people in religious cases, a general skepticism of executive power and a history of ruling for immigrants give some reason to think he could be sympathetic to plaintiffs challenging a ban on people from certain countries."

(REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

Environment

In the 2015 case Energy and Environment Legal Institute vs. Epel, Gorsuch sided with a Colorado law that requires 20 percentage of electricity sold in the state to be from renewable sources. The case was filed by an out-of-state coal company, claiming the law was a threat to interstate commerce. 

(REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

LGBTQ rights

When pressed about gay rights and strict interpretations of the law by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.) during his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch responded that "no one is looking to return us to horse and buggy days."

"We’re trying to interpret the law faithfully, taking principles that are enduring and a Constitution that was meant to last ages and apply it and interpret it to today’s problems." 

Gorsuch also told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "A good judge starts with precedent and doesn’t reinvent the wheel. So to the extent, there are decisions on these topics — and there are — a good judge respects precedent."

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Marijuana

While Gorsuch does hail from Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, it is still unclear where he stands on the issue.

In 2015, Gorsuch ruled against a dispensary, forcing the company to pay taxes on items they wrote off as business expenses in an effort to avoid incriminating themselves due to a federal law banning marijuana. 

(Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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"He's going to make an incredible addition to the court," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.

McConnell said Gorsuch, who also worked in the Justice Department under Republican former President George W. Bush and is the son of the first woman to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has "sterling credentials, an excellent record and an ideal judicial temperament."

Illustrating the importance of the moment, Vice President Mike Pence served as the Senate's presiding officer during the vote.

SEE ALSO: Republican senator predicts next Supreme Court fight will be 'armageddon'

Republicans, possessing a 52-48 Senate majority, on Thursday overcame a ferocious Democratic effort to block a confirmation vote by resorting to a rule change known as the "nuclear option."

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who led the opposition to Gorsuch, said he hopes the judge would heed concerns that the court is "increasingly drifting towards becoming a more pro-corporate court that favors employers, corporations and special interests over working America."

The Senate's approval of Gorsuch, 49, reinstates the nine-seat court's 5-4 conservative majority, fulfilling an important campaign promise made by the Republican president.

Supreme Court Justices

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Supreme Court Justices
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Supreme Court Justices

John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
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Gorsuch was the youngest Supreme Court nominee since Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1991 picked Clarence Thomas, who was 43 at the time. Gorsuch could be expected to serve for decades, while Trump could make further appointments to the high court to make it even more solidly conservative because three of the eight justices are 78 or older.

Gorsuch's confirmation gave a boost to Trump, showing he can get important agenda items through a Congress controlled by his fellow Republicans after the House of Representatives last month failed to pass healthcare overhaul legislation. Trump is planning major tax cut legislation as well.

EXTRAORDINARY STEPS

It was not easy. Senate Republicans resorted to extraordinary steps to overcome Democratic opposition to Gorsuch, including changing long-standing Senate rules to prohibit the use of a procedural blockade called a filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. The rule change was dubbed the "nuclear option" because it was considered an extreme break from Senate tradition.

Gorsuch joins fellow conservatives Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy on a court that also includes liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Had the Senate confirmed Obama's nominee Merrick Garland, the court would have tilted to the left for the first time in decades.

Inside the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch

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Inside the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch
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Inside the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch
With his wife Louise looking on,U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017.
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017.
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017.
Former U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) (from L) and Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch's wife Marie Louise Gorsuch listen to opening statements from fellow senators during the first day of Gorsuch's Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
With his wife Louise looking on, U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
With his wife Louise (2ndL) and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (L) looking on,U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Neil Gorsuch (C) leaves after his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing as US President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, in Washington March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool
Neil Gorsuch takes an oath during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing as US President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, in Washington March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch is embraced by his wife Marie Louise after he thanked her in his opening statement at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Neil Gorsuch takes an oath during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing as US President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, in Washington March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch looks at his papers as he delivers his opening remarks at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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Trump has recorded accomplishments since taking office on Jan. 20, including a variety of unilateral executive actions such as moving to undo Obama's climate change regulations.

But Trump has run into trouble with some other major initiatives. Courts blocked his executive action to stop people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. His administration also has faced questions about any role the president's associates may have played in alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Trump.

The rule change could make it easier for Trump to win confirmation of Supreme Court nominees as long as Republicans control the Senate, with Democrats left powerless to resist even if he gets a chance to replace the court's senior liberal, 84-year-old Ginsburg, or the court's swing vote, 80-year-old Kennedy, with more conservative replacements.

Democrats accused Gorsuch of being so conservative as to be outside the judicial mainstream, favoring corporate interests over ordinary Americans in legal opinions, and displaying insufficient independence from Trump.

A conservative-majority court is more likely to support gun rights, abortion regulations, an expansive view of religious liberty and Republican-backed voting restrictions, while opposing curbs on political spending. The court also is likely to tackle transgender rights and union funding in coming years.

Gorsuch could be sworn in as early as Friday so he can begin preparing for the court's next session of oral arguments, starting on April 17. The court's current term ends in June. Gorsuch is expected to hear arguments in 13 cases.

Gorsuch's first official act would be to participate in the justices' private April 13 conference to consider new cases to hear. There are appeals pending on expanding gun rights to include carrying concealed firearms in public, state voting restrictions that critics say are aimed at reducing minority turnout, and allowing business owners to object on religious grounds to provide certain services to gay couples.

On April 19, the court will hear a religious rights case in which a church contends Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom by denying it funds for a playground project due to a state ban on aid to religious organizations. Gorsuch has ruled several times in favor of expansive religious rights during his decade as a judge.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham)

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