Flanked by the president who promised to fill the seat of conservative Antonin Scalia with someone in the mold of the late justice, Neil Gorsuch was sworn in on Monday as the Supreme Court’s newest member — ending a bitter, yearlong fight that may forever change how Supreme Court battles are waged and won.
In a private ceremony at the Supreme Court and later in a public event at the White House, Gorsuch took separate constitutional and judicial oaths as the nation’s 113th justice.
The lifetime appointment restores the court’s half-century-old conservative majority. At 49, Gorsuch could serve on the bench for decades. It is also by far the biggest coup of President Donald Trump’s chaotic first 100 days in office ― the confirmation process went relatively smoothly despite bitter bickering in the Senate, which blew up its own rules to get Gorsuch confirmed.
“I’ve always heard that the most important thing that a president of the United States does is appoint people ― and hopefully, great people, like this appointment ― to the United States Supreme Court,” Trump said to the crowd gathered in the Rose Garden, which included every sitting justice now on the court.
“And I got it done in the first 100 days!” Trump boasted.
Gorsuch’s swearing-in at the White House was also symbolic. His former boss on the high court when he was a young lawyer, Justice Anthony Kennedy, administered the oath.
“We as a people find our self-definition, our heritage, and our destiny in our Constitution,” Kennedy said in brief remarks before he read from the judicial oath. As of Monday, Gorsuch became the first former law clerk to serve alongside one of the justices he worked with.
“I won’t ever forget that the seat that I inherit today is that of a very, very great man,” the new justice said following his swearing-in, referring to Scalia, whose seat remained unfilled for more than 400 days.
One Supreme Court commentator quipped that Gorsuch may have been referring to Judge Merrick Garland, whom former President Barack Obama chose to fill the Scalia seat but who was historically denied even a hearing by Senate Republicans. During his own confirmation hearing, Gorsuch had nothing but praise for Garland but refused to say what he thought about how the Senate treated the judge.
The White House, for its part, has its sights set on the next Supreme Court vacancy.
Three justices — Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — are all in their 80s or near it, and a death or retirement during Trump’s first term is a real possibility. With the loss of a liberal justice or Kennedy, who often votes with them on issues such as gay rights, Republicans could entrench a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
After Monday’s festivities, Gorsuch is expected to dive headlong into the work of the court. Later this week, he will convene with his eight colleagues for his first private conference, where the nine will consider which new cases to add to the Supreme Court’s docket for the new term, which begins in October.
Next week, Gorsuch will begin hearing the court’s last batch of cases for the current term. Of these disputes, perhaps the most significant is a contentious church-state dispute from Missouri that is likely to divide the justices into ideological factions.
Also down the line are cases that directly implicate Trump and his policies — including constitutional challenges to Trump’s beleaguered travel ban and conflicts of interests under a clause of the Constitution that bars federal officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. Citing judicial ethics concerns, Gorsuch declined to comment on these issues during his Senate hearings.
“I will never forget that to whom much is given, much will be expected,” Gorsuch said as he closed out his remarks, which commended the roles of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) during his confirmation. “And I promise you that I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great nation.”
As the most junior justice, Gorsuch will also relieve Justice Elena Kagan, who joined the court in 2010, from answering the door at high court’s private conferences — a tradition reserved for the court’s newest member. Gorsuch is also expected to take over from her in attending the cafeteria committee — an informal body that determines the food served to the public and employees on Supreme Court grounds.
Kagan gave Gorsuch a taste of what that’s like during a public appearance last summer in Colorado, according to The Washington Post.
“I think this is a way to kind of humble people,” Kagan said. “You think you’re kind of hot stuff. You’re an important person. You’ve just been confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.”