Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Local attorneys from across the political spectrum who have appeared before U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch call him “a gentleman,” “extraordinarily affable,” and “an exceptional nomination.”
As a federal Court of Appeals judge posted in Denver for the past 10 years, Gorsuch has ruled on numerous cases from New Mexico, giving many local attorneys an up-close view of the man who could fill the seat of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
His seat has been vacant since his death in 2016 and the subsequent Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
“He is an enormous intellect, a really, really bright guy. In terms of his demeanor, he was great. He’d be asking the tough questions but he never did it in a way that was mean or nasty or abrupt or condescending. He was always a gentleman,” said Albuquerque attorney Paul Kennedy.
Critics of Gorsuch, including some high-level federal Democratic legislators, labor union supporters and other liberal-leaning groups, say he may well be likeable but they disapprove that he is as conservative, if not more so, than Scalia.
He sided with the Hobby Lobby corporation in denying health insurance coverage for certain types of birth control for employees. And he is staunchly against legalizing or decriminalizing assisted suicide, citing the “inviolability” of life, a claim pro-abortion rights advocates say could extend to abortion issues should they arise at the court.
Albuquerque attorney Jerry Walz, who has appeared before Gorsuch a dozen or so times, mostly on civil rights cases, said the 49-year-old Colorado native isn’t an “ideologue.”
“Politics aside, Judge Gorsuch would be someone good for the judiciary and the country. People should rest assured that he would always try to make the most learned and just decision and politics would not be a consideration or factor in his decisions,” Walz said. “And that’s from me, and I’m a longtime Democrat.”
Locally, Gorsuch ruled that Albuquerque police officers had not used excessive force when they shot Stephan Cordova in 2008. And he disagreed with his fellow appellate judges in the 2011 Albuquerque case of a 13-year-old Cleveland Middle School student who was arrested and jailed after repeatedly burping in class.
In that case, his fellow judges ruled that the school police officer was within the scope of his duty when he arrested the child and protected from lawsuit.
But Gorsuch dissented, saying the officer overstepped his bounds and “any reasonable officer” should have known that “arresting a now compliant class clown for burping was going a step too far.”
Attorneys in those cases and others before Gorsuch faced extensive questioning from him as a matter of practice.
“When Neil Gorsuch walks into a room, he gets respect and recognition immediately,” Walz said. “I don’t want to quite equate him to a rock star, but in the legal world, regardless of what legal argument you’ve advanced … you always respect his intellectual abilities, his preparation, his analysis. You walk away knowing that you’ve appeared in front of the finest appellate judges in the country.”
Albuquerque attorney Andy Schultz met Gorsuch at reunions for people who had clerked for former Justice Byron White.
Clerking for a justice is a highly prized, prestigious position responsible for helping research legal issues and writing draft opinions for justices. Each justice gets four law clerks a year selected on their reputation and recommendations from colleagues.
“Gorsuch has placed 11 of his (Appeals Court) clerks with Supreme Court justices, so he is in the very top. And not only has he placed them, his law clerks go all over the place. They’ve clerked for Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and they’ve also clerked for Kagan and Sotomayor,” said Schultz, naming current and former justices. “This is a really good indicator of what the justices think of this guy before he was even a nominee to the Supreme Court. It’s like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. And it cuts across the political spectrum.”
Schultz said he thinks Gorsuch will fit in with the current Supreme Court.
Kennedy, though, thinks he might do more.
“He’ll be one of the brightest justices on that court – if not the brightest – and I’m sure his demeanor won’t change,” Kennedy said.
That demeanor, the local attorneys say, is gentle and kind but nothing to mess around with.
“Appearing in front of him (Gorsuch) from my understanding is an exercise in intellectual gymnastics. He has a reputation for being remarkably prepared and really pushing attorneys to the edges of their arguments, not because he’s a bully in any sense, but because he really wants to know how far the law can go. In that sense, he will fit in very well with this current Supreme Court,” Schultz said.
Paul Kennedy said Gorsuch’s method of questioning attorneys was distinctive and different from other judges he’s encountered.
“It’s not that they’re (judges) are all mean or nasty, he was just a notch above all of them. He would delve into some of the details of a case on some issues he was interested in that other judges would not have done. Some esoteric legal aspects of the case that other judges wouldn’t be interested in or wouldn’t understand. It was always a pleasure to be in front of him because whether you won or lost, you knew you were going to be treated fairly,” Kennedy said.