WASHINGTON - Nearly a full year after Justice Antonin Scalia's death left the Supreme Court shorthanded, President Trump nominated federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the void Tuesday night, setting off a pitched battle over the direction of the nation's highest court
Trump was unveiling his nominee to the nation on live television from the East Room of the White House after a day filled with palace intrigue, during which the media mapped the whereabouts of Gorsuch, from Colorado, and federal appeals court Judge Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania, another favorite for the seat.
Gorsuch, 49, is a Scalia acolyte who believes judges should interpret laws as they are written and enforce the Constitution as the nation's framers intended. He writes with a Scalia-like flair and has degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Oxford.
Gorsuch and Hardiman emerged from a list of 21 people Trump was considering, topped initially by federal appeals court judges William Pryor of Alabama and Diane Sykes of Wisconsin. But Pryor has a more controversial record on issues such as abortion and gay rights, possibly making Senate confirmation risky, and the 59-year-old Sykes projects to fewer years on the bench.
The White House filled the East Room with Washington's movers and shakers for the dramatic announcement, which was being compared to Trump's TV show, "The Apprentice." On hand were Vice President Pence, top Republican leaders in Congress, and Scalia's widow, Maureen. Democratic leaders declined their invitations.
"This particular choice is one that the president takes very seriously," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday afternoon. "He knows it will impact the course of our country’s jurisprudence for generations to come."
Trump's nominee will face intense opposition from Senate Democrats and liberal interest groups, which already have scheduled a 9 p.m. protest at the Supreme Court to follow the announcement.
Republicans hold a 52-seat majority in the Senate, large enough to block former president Barack Obama's choice of federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland last year but not sufficient to overcome a filibuster if Democrats seek to bottle up the nomination as revenge for what many consider a stolen Supreme Court seat. Unless Trump can win over eight of them, Republicans will have to change the Senate's rules, eliminating the 60-vote threshold needed to bring the nomination to the floor. Trump endorsed such a move last week.
The White House is hoping to have the seat filled in time for the court's April sitting, the last of the 2016 term, when several cases could be considered involving such issues as religious liberty and transgender rights. That likely was one reason for announcing the nomination two days earlier than initially planned.
“There’s a lot of cases that I think are in the cue right now that have the potential to be 4-4 (votes)," Spicer said. "I think the idea is to get this individual confirmed as soon as possible, just to get the docket moving. That’s probably the biggest priority right now.”
Conservative interest groups were preparing the initial phase of what they said would be a $10 million advertising campaign on behalf of the nominee. The first ads will go up in four states that Trump won decisively in November where Democratic senators face tough re-election battles: Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota.
Replacing Scalia will not shift the court ideologically from where it was a year ago, but it will put conservatives one seat short of a commanding majority. With the seat filled, the longest-serving justice, Anthony Kennedy, once again will be the man in the middle — siding with conservatives in most cases but occasionally with liberals on issues such as abortion, affirmative action and gay rights.
Still, Democrats understand demographics: Kennedy, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, is 80 years old and considering retirement. President Bill Clinton's two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are 83 and 78, respectively. One or more retirements would give Trump an opportunity to shift the court to the right, possibly for generations to come.
For that reason, some Democrats have said recently that they should consider Scalia's replacement on his or her merits and save their more vehement opposition for the next nomination fight, if it comes during Trump's presidency.
Contributing: David Jackson, Erin Kelly and Donovan Slack