The widely publicized judicial resistance to President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily limiting entry into the United States by foreign nationals from certain countries has focused public attention as never before on the enormous power wielded by activist judges. Many people who do not generally follow the doings of the judiciary were alarmed by the ruling of Seattle-based Judge James L. Robart enjoining the so-called travel ban, despite the dubious “standing” of the two states challenging it (Washington and Minnesota). Many laypeople also listened in dismay to the oral argument before the Ninth Circuit, and have read extensive criticisms of both the temporary restraining order issued by Judge Robart and the unsigned Ninth Circuit decision refusing to stay the TRO, neither of which cited the statute expressly authorizing President Trump to take the disputed action.
The old Democratic playbook on Republican Supreme Court nominations will no longer work for the Gorsuch confirmation hearings. Democrats used to spend much of their time talking about the importance of precedent and demanding that nominees follow it. The point, of course, was to protect one particular precedent above all—Roe v. Wade—and more generally keep alive the precedents favoring liberalism that were minted in the Warren and to some extent Burger and even Rehnquist eras.
But this approach no longer fits the times. One reason is multiplication of precedents that the Democratic base wants overruled. Citizens United is the best example. Hillary Clinton was even going to make its overruling a litmus test of her judicial appointments. But there are others too. Senator Schumer has already complained in the context of this nomination about Shelby County v Holder, which found a portion of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. And few cases enraged the left like Hobby Lobby, which held that closely held corporation had religious freedom rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. More generally, given that liberals have not been a majority on Court in several generations, there is growing body of precedent they do not like.
And much of the Democratic party too is changing to become more openly radical. Thus, its base is not satisfied with simply standing on past precedent while hoping that the Court will drift their way. It wants the Court to be a more active partner in progressive social change.
This creates a dilemma for Democrats. The very important advantage of prioritizing precedent is that that appears to make them adherents of following the law, where the law is defined as the past case law of the Supreme Court.
Judge Neil Gorsuch is worthy successor to Justice Antonin Scalia. He is an advocate of originalism who writes well enough to persuade the public and has the intellectual heft to engage the academy. But there is one way in which he differs sharply from Scalia. He is no fan of the Chevron doctrine, which directs judges to defer to agency interpretations of statutes so long as they are reasonable even if the interpretations are not the best. Given that much of modern law is administrative law and so much of our current democratic deficit is due to the administrative state, this is an important difference.
And it is a difference that reveals something about President Donald Trump, about the changing nature of modern legal conservativism, and about the internal tension of the Democratic opposition to Gorsuch.
A common criticism of President Trump is that he is an authoritarian executive. But he has chosen to nominate a judge who is on the record against giving deference to interpretation of statutes by heads of executive agencies. Gorsuch opposes an important doctrine that would protect the administration’s authority.
With his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch President Trump may have done more for originalism than any President since Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, a few days later, he called into question his own commitment to the rule of law by calling an Article III judge a “so-called judge.” The juxtaposition of the excellent and the reckless continues what I have argued is the essential pattern of his Presidency: He makes appointments (except in the trade area) that on balance advance classical liberalism and limited government, but makes remarks that are foolish with the potential to undermine much of the good his appointments will do.
First, the good news: Gorsuch is a fine nomination, a worthy successor to Justice Scalia in the three ways that count. First, he is an originalist. That matters, because the last two Republican appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have not shown themselves to be either declared or relatively consistent originalists. And it is originalism tha holds the most promise for maintaining a beneficent Constitution and a constrained judiciary.
Second, as I argued at the City Journal, Gorsuch is a superb writer. To be powerful and influential with the public, as Scalia was, a justice needs to convey his ideas clearly and pungently. Justice Clarence Thomas, for all his other fine qualities as justice, is not as good as Scalia was at this task. Gorsuch is in the top 2 percent of all federal judges in this ability.
Third, to be influential with academics, justices must be at home in the world of legal scholarship and theory.
Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is by virtually every account a stellar jurist. His writings are now being mined, by supporters and opponents alike, for evidence of his commitment to judicial restraint and the separation of powers.
That evidence is not hard to find. In an address delivered on April 27, 2016, Gorsuch spoke of “the great project of Justice Scalia’s career,” namely to expound “the differences between judges and legislators.”