Gorsuch Stresses Judicial Independence In Second Day Of Hearings

Mar 22, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 11:10 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is hoping to wrap up its questioning of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. That is after yesterday's hearing lasted more than 11 hours. It was a wide-ranging hearing. And NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Last night, the White House proved once again that it knows how to make life hard for itself. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal asked nominee Gorsuch about President Trump's nasty tweets about judges who ruled against his travel ban. Gorsuch replied with words identical to those he was quoted as making last month in private meetings with senators.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

NEIL GORSUCH: When anyone criticizes the honesty or integrity, the motives of a federal judge, well, I find that disheartening. I find that demoralizing.

TOTENBERG: When the Associated Press tweeted during the hearing that Gorsuch had called Trump's comments disheartening and demoralizing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tweeted back - wrong and misleading. He spoke broadly and never mentioned any person.

Earlier in the day, Gorsuch was asked about Trump's repeated pledge during the campaign to name a justice who would overrule the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion decision Roe versus Wade. Republican Lindsey Graham asked the nominee about his pre-nomination job interview with Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: In that interview, did he ever ask you to overrule Roe v. Wade?

GORSUCH: No, Senator.

GRAHAM: What would you have done if he had asked?

GORSUCH: Senator, I would've walked out the door.

TOTENBERG: Hours later though, Gorsuch conceded under further questioning that Trump had raised the abortion issue during their interview, saying the issue is highly divisive and adding that the American people are equally divided between those for and against. If that was meant as bait to get Gorsuch to react, he apparently didn't take the bait. Senator Richard Durbin asked the nominee about letters from two of his former students who allege that Gorsuch had asked for a show of hands in class as to who knew of women who had manipulated their law firms by failing to disclose their plans to have a family, then using their maternity benefits once hired and then leaving the firm.

Gorsuch responded vehemently that he had done no such thing, that in fact he always asked for a show of hands to see if law firm applicants generally were being asked at job interviews about their plans to have a family.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

GORSUCH: I knew this stuff happened when my mom was a young practicing lawyer, graduating law school in the 1960s. I am shocked it still happens every year that I get women, not men, raising their hand to that question.

TOTENBERG: Several Democrats tried in vain to get Gorsuch to discuss his views on campaign finance laws. Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse observed that one group had spent $10 million promoting Gorsuch. And the same group spent $7 million seeking to prevent a hearing for Obama nominee Merrick Garland.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Do you think for instance that we are on this panel ought to know who is behind that?

GORSUCH: That's a political question for this body. And, Senator, with all respect, the ball's in your court.

TOTENBERG: Whitehouse rejected that notion, angrily noting that it was the Supreme Court which, as he put it, had dramatically changed the political ecosystem.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

WHITEHOUSE: What could be more involved in politics than to open this ocean of dark money that's flooded into our politics?

TOTENBERG: And then there was Gorsuch's dissent in the so-called frozen trucker case which involved a trucker whose trailer brakes locked in subzero temperatures. The trucker called his employer for help. And when none arrived after three hours on the roadside with no heat, he was unable to feel his legs and was having trouble breathing. So he unhitched the trailer and drove away, returning about 15 minutes later when help arrived.

The Labor Department ruled that his subsequent firing for this conduct violated a federal law that bars discharge for refusal to operate a vehicle for health and safety reasons. The appeals court agreed, but Gorsuch dissented, siding with the company. The nominee grew increasingly pained-looking as Senator Al Franken pressed him on the matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

AL FRANKEN: It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving in an unsafe vehicle. That's absurd.

TOTENBERG: Gorsuch, however, continued to insist that the literal language of the statute required this outcome. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.