WASHINGTON — Neil McGill Gorsuch of Colorado won Senate confirmation Friday as the 113th justice of the Supreme Court, completing a 419-day odyssey that stretched from the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the denial of President Obama's nominee to a Senate rules change known as the "nuclear option."
Senators voted 54-45 to confirm Gorsuch, including just three Democrats in support. All three — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — represent states President Trump won handily in November. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., recovering from back surgery, was absent.
Justices are appointed for life, and Gorsuch, 49, could serve for decades on the high court, giving President Trump a lasting legacy.
"His judicial temperament, exceptional intellect, unparalleled integrity and record of independence makes him the perfect choice to serve on the nation’s highest court," Trump said in a statement released after the vote. "As a deep believer in the rule of law, Judge Gorsuch will serve the American people with distinction as he continues to faithfully and vigorously defend our Constitution."
Gorsuch, a conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, was confirmed the day after Republicans changed Senate rules to end a Democratic filibuster and advance the nomination with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed before the rules change. That was the so-called nuclear option.
"He's going to make a fantastic addition to the court," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said before the final vote. "He's going to make the American people proud."
Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he hopes Gorsuch will prove to be a justice who stands up for average Americans rather than corporate interests.
"I hope Judge Gorsuch has listened to our debate here in the Senate, particularly about our concern about the Supreme Court increasingly drifting towards becoming a more pro-corporate court that favors employers, corporations and special interests over working Americans," he said. "We need a justice on the court who will help swing it back in the direction of the people."
Friday's vote won't put Gorsuch on the high court immediately. He will be sworn in at the court by Chief Justice John Roberts at 9 a.m. Monday, followed by a public White House ceremony presided over by Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch clerked 23 years ago.
He will attend his first private conference with his new colleagues Thursday and sit for the next round of oral arguments that begins April 17 — including an important case on the separation of church and state that's been delayed for months, presumably because of the risk of a 4-4 tie vote.
Beyond the immediate logistics, the conclusion of the 14-month-long process will have a major impact on all three branches of government. It will bring the court back to full strength after a period in which it deadlocked on four cases, delayed others and avoided sweeping rulings. It will leave the Senate deeply riven, both politically and procedurally, after bitter battles over not one but two nominees. And it will give President Trump his first major achievement amid imbroglios over health care, immigration and the White House's ties to Russia.
Republicans and their conservative allies were in celebration mode as the clock ticked down to the final vote Friday. To them, Gorsuch epitomizes the type of judge who decides cases based on the Constitution, the law and precedents, rather than personal opinion or ideology.
"A year ago, we lost Justice Scalia, a giant, and today, we are one step closer to seeing the preservation of his legacy on the court,” said Leonard Leo, who took a leave of absence from the conservative Federalist Society to help with the confirmation process. Gorsuch "believes deeply in neutral, impartial decision-making, and he is deeply committed to a Constitution whose limits on judicial and government power inextricably intertwine with the preservation of human freedom.”
Democrats and their liberal allies were desultory after losing not only the confirmation battle but the minority party's right to block high court nominations with 41 votes. They fear Gorsuch will align himself with the court's other conservatives on issues ranging from employment discrimination to reproductive rights.
“The Senate has just confirmed an individual to the Supreme Court whose record is hostile to our rights and liberties," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. "His confirmation continues the rightward march of the Roberts Court, which has already staked out pro-big-business stances at the expense of everyday people."
Erudite but evasive during more than 20 hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Gorsuch largely skated through a Senate process that tripped up Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee, from the get-go. Senate Republicans' refusal to consider Garland — chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a traditional steppingstone to the Supreme Court — colored Democrats' reception to Gorsuch since his nomination Jan. 31.
A graduate of Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the University of Oxford, Gorsuch arrived at the Senate with a glamorous pedigree. His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Reagan administration until she was forced out after a dispute with Congress. He clerked for two Supreme Court justices before embarking on a legal career that included a high-ranking Justice Department post.
For the past 10-plus years on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch has developed a reputation as a strict "textualist" and "originalist" — like Scalia, someone who reads statutes and the Constitution literally and seeks to interpret them through the eyes of their authors. He is an expansive thinker and a facile writer whose law clerks often go on to bigger and better things — including similar postings at the Supreme Court.
Trump's choice of Gorsuch from a list of 21 potential nominees created in conjunction with the Federalist Society and equally conservative Heritage Foundation soothed Republicans but enraged Democrats, who complained about "dark money" spent on his behalf by other right-wing groups during the confirmation process. The campaign on Gorsuch's behalf helped to unite Republicans but wooed less than a handful of Democrats to his side, leaving McConnell to deploy the nuclear option.
"We know he’ll be independent," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said. "He told us that he’s his own man, that no man speaks for him. He’s not beholden to the president who appointed him. And his testimony shows that he’s not beholden to us, either. He wouldn’t compromise his independence to win confirmation votes."
Democrats and liberals argued that his record on the Denver-based court shows an inclination to side with corporations against "the little guy," as in an oft-ridiculed dissent against a truck driver who left his disabled trailer in freezing weather and a decision against the family of an autistic boy seeking public funds to send him to private school.
"I fear very much that (Gorsuch) will be part of an extreme right-wing majority that will attack workers’ rights, women’s rights and environmental protection as well as make our political system less democratic," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who sought the Democratic nomination for president last year.
Even after Gorsuch's confirmation was assured, Senate leaders continued to squabble Friday about the way in which it happened.
"I wish that important aspects of this process had played out differently," McConnell said. "It didn’t have to be this way. But today is a new day. I hope my Democratic friends will take this moment to reflect and perhaps consider a turning point in their outlook going forward."
Schumer said the Republicans' rules change will make the Senate and the Supreme Court more partisan places. "As a result, America's faith in the integrity of the court and their trust in the basic impartiality of the law will suffer," he said. "Those are serious things for this republic."
As Gorsuch heads to the high court, attention quickly will turn to the possibility of more vacancies during Trump's time in the White House. Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch once clerked, is 80 and may be contemplating retirement. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are 84 and 78, respectively. If Trump gets to replace any of them, the court could swing much further to the right.
After the Senate's rules changed to eliminate the minority party's power, “the president no longer needs to garner support from any Democrats,” said John Malcolm, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Republicans may be more emboldened to nominate more judges that have a conservative track record.”