U.S. Supreme Court’s ideological balance at stake in confirmation fight

When President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is sworn in for his Senate confirmation hearing on Monday, Democrats will make the case that he is a pro-business, social conservative insufficiently independent of the president.

In a bid to place hurdles in the way of Gorsuch's expected confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats on the judiciary committee have said they will probe him on several fronts based mainly on his record as a federal appeals court judge and a Justice Department appointee under former President George W. Bush.

Gorsuch has served on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 2006. He would replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative majority on the court.

Among questions he will face will be whether he is sufficiently independent from Trump, who has criticized judges for ruling against his bid to restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries.

"The high burden of proof that Judge Gorsuch has to meet is largely a result of the president who nominated him," Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who sits on the committee, said last week at an event featuring several plaintiffs who lost cases that came before Gorsuch.

Another line of attack previewed by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer at the same event is to focus on rulings Gorsuch, 49, has authored in which corporate interests won out over individual workers.

"Judge Gorsuch may act like a neutral, calm judge but his record and his career clearly show he harbors a right wing, pro-corporate special interest legal agenda," Schumer said.

One case involved truck driver Alphonse Maddin, who was fired after he disobeyed a supervisor and abandoned his trailer at the side of a road after the brakes froze. Gorsuch wrote a dissenting opinion as a three-judge panel ruled last year that Maddin was wrongly terminated and had to be reinstated with back pay.

Another issue, set to be pressed by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is Gorsuch's role as a Justice Department lawyer under Bush from 2005 to 2006, when he helped defend controversial policies enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, including the administration's expansive use of aggressive interrogation techniques.

Gorsuch' views on social issues, including a 2006 book he wrote in which he argued against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, will be discussed too.

In the book, Gorsuch cited the "inviolability of human life," calling it a "basic good," which some conservatives say could indicate that he is also opposed to abortion. Conservative activists have for decades sought to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

Republicans have praised Gorsuch's 11-year record on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Notwithstanding Gorsuch’s superb qualifications and principled approach to judging, Democrats and their liberal allies strain mightily to find plausible grounds to oppose his nomination," Hatch said in a newspaper article on Friday.

Known for his genial demeanor and keen intellect, Gorsuch will, like prior nominees, seek to engage with senators as much as possible while declining to answer specific questions.

Much is at stake for Trump and his Republican Party. If confirmed as expected given the Republicans' control of the 100-member Senate, Gorsuch would restore the court’s conservative tilt. Doing that without too much drama would be Trump's biggest win so far as president.

With the United States divided sharply between liberals and conservatives, ideological dominance of the Supreme Court, where justices serve for life, is a blue-ribbon prize, with an impact that can last for decades.

For Democrats, the hearing will dredge up bitter feelings. After Scalia died unexpectedly, former Democratic President Barack Obama nominated a replacement, but Republicans for months refused to consider him, blocking a leftward shift on the court.

Since Scalia’s death the court has been divided equally 4-4 between conservatives and liberals.

In some ways, the fight over Gorsuch will be just a preview of an even bigger battle to come over the next vacancy.

"We’ve known for years, before Justice Scalia passed, that this next president would have two or three Supreme Court nominations," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative legal group.

Three court justices are elderly. Ruth Bader Ginsburg just turned 84. Her fellow liberal Stephen Breyer is 78. The court’s frequent swing vote, conservative Anthony Kennedy, is 80.

If any of them was to be replaced by a conservative similar to Gorsuch, the court would have a firm 6-3 conservative majority, possibly for decades.

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