WASHINGTON ― Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has come across as smooth and unflappable in his confirmation hearings this week, but he did show flashes of defensiveness on Tuesday when he was pressed on one point: his record on upholding workers’ rights.
Gorsuch is a former corporate law firm attorney and currently a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has built a record of siding with employers in workers’ rights cases. One of his former law students has also alleged that he told his class that female job applicants manipulate companies to extract maternity benefits. (Another one of Gorsuch’s students refuted that account.)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, asked Gorsuch how people can trust that he would look out for the “little guy” in cases involving workers who sue employers.
“I’m just looking for something that would indicate that you would give a worker a fair shot,” she said. “Maybe it’s in your background somewhere that I don’t know about.”
Feinstein’s questions were part of a broader Democratic effort to paint Gorsuch as a judge who protects corporations at the expense of regular people. Last week, Democrats held a press conference with people who said they’ve been hurt by Gorsuch’s rulings, including Alphonse Maddin, a TransAm Trucking driver who got fired for unhitching his trailer and driving away to seek warmth when his truck’s brakes seized up on a freezing night in Illinois. When Maddin sued, claiming he was unlawfully fired because his life was at risk as he waited hours for help that never came, Gorsuch ruled against him.
Gorsuch took issue with Democrats focusing on cases like Maddin’s.
“I know a case or two has been mentioned yesterday,” he told Feinstein. “Respectfully, I’d suggest that does not represent the body of my work. I’ve participated in 2,700 opinions over 10 and a half years. If you want cases where I’ve ruled for ‘the little guy’ as well as ‘the big guy,’ there are plenty of them, senator.”
When Feinstein asked if he could submit examples, Gorsuch replied, “Oh goodness! I’ll name a bunch right now.”
He listed a few cases, including a 1990 lawsuit involving Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in which he’d ruled in favor of people who had been subjected to uranium pollution by large companies in Colorado, and Orr v. the City of Albuquerque, which involved pregnancy discrimination in a police department.
“The bottom line ... I’d like to convey to you, from the bottom of my heart,” Gorsuch added, with a somewhat dramatic pause, “is that I’m a fair judge.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) could not get over how “absurd” it seemed that Maddin had to choose between possibly freezing to death and getting fired ― and that Gorsuch ruled that TransAm had a right to fire Maddin in that scenario. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get Gorsuch to say what choice he would have made if he were in Maddin’s shoes that night.
“I had a career in identifying absurdity. I know it when I see it,” Franken said. “It makes me question your judgment.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) raised concerns about the way Gorsuch became Trump’s Supreme Court nominee: Two conservative groups, the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, recommended him to the president.
“It appears the president outsourced your selection to far-right big money special interest groups,” Leahy said. “You might not like that terminology, but even Republican senators have praised the fact that the president had gone to this group.”
He asked Gorsuch if he believes the drafters of the First Amendment intended for it to cover corporate money being funneled into political campaigns, a reference to the Citizens United v. FEC decision that has blown open the doors to money influencing elections.
“Different justices came to different conclusions,” Gorsuch said.
“Nothing about corporate money?” Leahy asked again, rhetorically, about an instance of those words appearing in the Constitution.
“I don’t remember that term,” Gorsuch replied.
“Trust me,” Leahy said. “There wasn’t.”
This story has been updated to include Franken’s comments.