DENVER—Neil Gorsuch, named Tuesday as President Donald Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, has a solidly conservative pedigree that has earned him comparison to the combative justice he would replace, Antonin Scalia.
Gorsuch clerked for two Supreme Court justices and worked in President George W. Bush’s Justice Department before being appointed to the federal bench and authoring a series of sharply written, conservative opinions. His mother, Anne, ran President Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency.
But Gorsuch has also won praise among liberals and others in the Colorado legal community for his fair-mindedness and defence of the underdog.
“He is a very, very smart man. His leanings are very conservative, but he’s qualified to be on the Supreme Court,” said Denver plaintiff’s attorney David Lane. “I don’t know that Judge Gorsuch has a political agenda and he is sincere and honest and believes what he writes.”
A judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Gorsuch lives in the hyper-liberal college town of Boulder and teaches at the University of Colorado’s law school there, also a progressive bastion.
“I think this should be Merrick Garland’s seat,” said Jordan Henry, one of Gorsuch’s students there and a self-described liberal, referring to President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy last year who was never considered by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. But she described Gorsuch as an eager mentor, always solicitous of students’ opinions and with a brilliant mind.
“He’s dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the justice system,” said Henry, 29. “I do take some comfort that he can be a Trump choice.”
Gorsuch is a Colorado native who earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in three years, then earned a law degree from Harvard. He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White, a fellow Coloradan, and Anthony Kennedy before earning a philosophy degree at Oxford University and working for a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm.
He served for two years in Bush’s Justice Department before Bush appointed him to a seat on the 10th Circuit in 2006.
His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, served as administrator of the EPA, but she was forced to resign 1983 amid a scandal involving the mismanagement of a $1.6 billion program to clean up hazardous waste dumps. Burford was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over Superfund records, which she claimed were protected by executive privilege.
Neil Gorsuch has contended that courts give too much deference to government agencies’ interpretations of statutes, a deference that stems from a Supreme Court ruling in a 1984 case. More recently, he sided with two groups that successfully challenged the Obama administration’s requirements that employers provide health insurance that includes contraception.
Gorsuch summed up his minimalist judicial philosophy and focus on impartial judgment Tuesday evening.
“A judge who reaches every outcome he wishes is likely a very bad judge,” he said after Trump introduced him from the East Room of the White House in a primetime televised address.
Lane, who frequently clashes with law enforcement, praised Gorsuch as fair and open-minded. Lane won a $1.8 million jury verdict against the Denver Police Department in a brutality and wrongful arrest case. The city appealed and the case ended up before Gorsuch. Lane said Gorsuch tore into the city’s lawyers and urged them to go to mediation rather than drag out appeals for years to deny the plaintiffs their reward. The mediation led the case to be settled for $1.6 million.
Gorsuch has also drawn attention for siding with religious employers against the Obama administration’s requirement that they provide health insurance that covers contraception. He also wrote a book arguing against assisted suicide.
Marcy Glenn, a Denver attorney and Democrat, recalls two cases before Goresuch in which she represented underdogs—a college student facing criminal libel charges for mocking a professor, which Gorsuch said should be dropped, and homeowners suing over illnesses stemming from an old nuclear weapons facility outside Denver whose class action lawsuit Gorsuch revived in a novelistic, 38-page ruling that begins: “Harnessing nuclear energy is a delicate business.”
“He issued a decision that most certainly focused on the little guy,” Glenn said.
Rebecca Love Kourlis, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice, said Gorsuch has written 175 majority opinions and 65 concurrences or dissents in his decade on the 10th Circuit.
“He’s really earned his stripes,” she said.
Kourlis said Gorsuch is also a notable advocate for simplifying the justice system to make it more accessible. “Legal services in this country are so expensive that the United States ranks near the bottom of developed nations when it comes to access to counsel in civil cases,” Gorsuch wrote in a journal article last year. “The real question is what to do about it.”
The article is written in Gorsuch’s characteristic, straightforward style.
“He thinks it’s really important for people other than lawyers to understand what he’s writing,” Kourlis said.
Gorsuch is also an avid skier, fly fisherman and horseback rider, Kourlis said. He teaches at the University of Colorado’s law school in Boulder.
“He is humble, he is extremely articulate and he is extraordinarily hard-working,” Kourlis said.
In his financial disclosure report for 2015, he reported assets ranging from $3.1 million to $7.25 million. He earned $26,000 for his law school duties and another $5,300 in book royalties that year.