WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on Monday that, if confirmed, the judge may soon be faced with having to enforce a subpoena against President Trump in the wake of revelations by FBI Director James Comey that his agency is investigating ties between Trump's associates and Russian interference in last year's presidential election.
"We meet this week in the midst of a looming constitutional crisis," the Connecticut Democrat told the appeals court judge during the first day of confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Just hours ago, not far from here, the director of the FBI revealed that his agency is investigating potential ties between President Trump's associates and Russian meddling in our election. The possibility of the Supreme Court needing to enforce a subpoena against the president is no longer idle speculation ... So the independence of the judiciary is more important than ever, and your defense of it is critical."
Comey, appearing before the House Intelligence Committee along with National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, confirmed for the first time publicly on Monday that the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, including communications between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Blumenthal's comments were the most explosive during the first of four days of confirmation hearings for Gorsuch, who was generally lauded Monday by Republicans as a highly respected, independent-minded judge with widespread support and impeccable credentials and denounced by Democrats as an extremist who has opposed workers' rights, abortion rights, environmental protections and gun control.
"No matter your politics ... you should be concerned about the preservation of our constitutional order and the separation of powers," said Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "Fortunately for every American, we have before us today a nominee whose body of professional work is defined by an unfailing commitment to these principles. His grasp on the separation of powers — including judicial independence — enlivens his body of work."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee's senior Democrat, said Gorsuch's writings suggest that he would seek to overturn the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 in favor of abortion rights. She said she also was concerned about two opinions he wrote that would make it easier for convicted felons to obtain firearms.
"Who sits on the Supreme Court should not simply evaluate legalistic theories and Latin phrases in isolation," Feinstein said. "They must understand the court's decisions have real world consequences for men, women and children across our nation."
After listening to four hours of comments from senators, Gorsuch finally got a chance to speak on Monday afternoon, offering an emotional tribute to the independent spirit of the American West where he grew up and to the family members and mentors who helped shape his life and career. It was the first time that most Americans had heard from Gorsuch — a judge for the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver — since he was introduced to the public by President Trump at the end of January to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died more than a year ago.
Gorsuch said he has agreed with the majority opinion 99% of the time on the appeals court, belying criticism that he is somehow out of the mainstream. He also contradicted his critics' portrayal of him as hostile to "the little guy" by pointing out that he has decided in favor of Indian tribes, people fighting corporate polluters, and undocumented immigrants in certain cases.
"Over the last decade, I've participated in more than 2,700 appeals," Gorsuch said. "I've served with judges appointed by President Obama, all the way back to President Johnson ... In the West, we listen to one another, respectfully. We cherish different points of view. And we seek consensus whenever we can ... That's my record. And that's how we do things in the West."
Gorsuch delivered his opening remarks after being introduced by the two senators from his home state of Colorado — Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Bennet praised Gorsuch's qualifications but said he has not yet decided how to vote on his confirmation.
The bulk of Monday's hearing was devoted to the opening statements of the committee's 11 Republican senators and nine Democratic senators as they laid out the case for and against Gorsuch's confirmation. Gorsuch, 49, is expected to face tough questioning from the panel's Democrats beginning Tuesday.
The committee, whose members range from liberal Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is slated to vote on April 3 on whether to recommend that Gorsuch be confirmed by the full Senate.
It will take 60 votes on the Senate floor to advance Gorsuch's nomination, meaning that he must attract the support of at least eight Democrats since Republicans hold only 52 seats in the closely divided chamber. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has expressed confidence that Gorsuch can get 60 votes. If that doesn't happen, McConnell has the option of invoking the "nuclear option" to change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority of 51 votes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said senators should support a qualified nominee such as Gorsuch, even if they don't agree with his political leanings. Graham voted to help confirm two of former president Barack Obama's nominees — Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
"So the issue for me is waiting to hear somebody over there (on the Democratic side) tell me why you're not qualified for the job you're seeking," Graham told the judge. "I just want you to know that, from my point of view, you're every bit as qualified as Justices Sotomayor and Kagan."
Leahy and other Democratic senators said they fear Gorsuch's "originalist" judicial philosophy, which means that he tries to interpret the Constitution the way that the Founding Fathers intended. Democrats argued that the Constitution should be interpreted as an evolving document that has moved beyond the time in America's early history when slavery was legal and women had few rights.
"While it has gained some popularity within conservative circles, originalism remains outside the mainstream of modern constitutional jurisprudence," Leahy said. "Given what we have seen from Justice Scalia and Justice (Clarence) Thomas, and in Judge Gorsuch’s own record, I worry that this is not just a philosophy; it is an agenda. We know that the conservative groups that vetted Judge Gorsuch, and the millionaires who fund them, have a clear agenda — one that is anti-choice, anti-environment, and pro-corporate. These groups are confident that Judge Gorsuch shares their agenda."
The debate is complicated by the bad blood between Democrats and Republicans over Obama's final Supreme Court nominee. Obama nominated appeals court Judge Merrick Garland, widely viewed as a moderate, to replace Scalia in March of last year. But Republican leaders refused to even hold confirmation hearings on Garland, saying that Obama should not be allowed to appoint a justice in the final year of his presidency and that the decision should be left to his successor. Democrats and many liberal advocacy groups see the GOP action in Garland's case as "stealing" a Supreme Court seat from Obama.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told Gorsuch that his nomination comes "during an unprecedented time in our nation's history."
"We are witnessing a singular moment of constitutional and democratic unease," she said, referring to what she described as attacks against the press and religious minorities by the Trump administration and the effort by Russia to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election. "You are not the cause of these challenges, judge. But if confirmed, you would play a critical role in dealing with them. This is a serious moment in our nation's history and, as representatives of the American people, it is our duty ... to determine if you will uphold the motto on the Supreme Court building itself — to help all Americans achieve equal justice."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
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