The day after the swearing-in of Justice Neil Gorsuch, Chief Justice John Roberts sounded off, in judicious terms, about the bitter partisan battle over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
Speaking at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Tuesday, the leader of the Supreme Court said there’s a “real danger” that the political animosity that characterized the nomination process will “infect” the public’s perception of how the court goes about its daily work.
“It is very difficult, I think, for a member of the public to look at what goes on in the confirmation hearings these days, which is a very sharp conflict in political terms between Democrats and Republicans, and not think that the person who comes out of that process must similarly share that same sort of partisan view of public issues and public life,” Roberts said.
That’s not how Gorsuch should be perceived, he said. “The new justice is not a Republican and not a Democrat. He is a member of the Supreme Court. But it’s hard for people to understand when they see the process that leads up to it,” said Roberts.
Rensselaer posted a video of Roberts’ remarks on YouTube.
The Supreme Court seat left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last year remained unfilled for more than 400 days — in large part due to Senate Republicans’ obstruction of President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. Once Trump won the presidency and selected Gorsuch, Republicans moved quickly to get him confirmed. They even blew past a Democratic filibuster by changing the rules for voting on Supreme Court nominees.
The chief justice said all that political wrangling should be seen as separate from Gorsuch’s work on the court, which began in earnest this week. The new justice is expected to sit for his first set of Supreme Court oral arguments next Monday.
The new justice is not a Republican and not a Democrat. He is a member of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts
Even Supreme Court nominees try to stay well away from politics. During his confirmation hearings, Gorsuch was asked repeatedly to take a stand against Trump or some of the president’s more controversial positions — such as his verbal attacks on judges who ruled against his Muslim-targeting travel ban. Gorsuch largely avoided answering such questions directly, noting that he couldn’t get involved in politics. He was similarly cautious when asked to comment on the Senate’s treatment of Garland.
In the 14 months since Scalia’s death, Roberts said that he and his colleagues on the court have been keeping a low profile — by “quietly going about [the] business of deciding the cases before it, according to the Constitution, in a completely nonpartisan way.”
“We’ve done it for the past 14 months with one vacancy, and we’ll do it going into the future now that we have a full complement” of justices, he said.
The chief has telegraphed how he feels about the Senate confirmation process before. The last time he lamented what the spectacle does to the Supreme Court was just 10 days before Scalia died and the whole process started up again.