JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Neil Gorsuch, named Tuesday as President Donald Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, has a solidly conservative pedigree that has earned him comparison to the combative justice he would replace, Antonin Scalia.
Local political experts said his credentials will be under the microscope during the confirmation process.
"Every Supreme Court nominee faces scrutiny for a very good reason. It's a lifetime appointment. Someone who is young like he is, 49 years old, could sit on the bench for decades and significantly shape the course of jurisprudence in this country, so there is always scrutiny," explained attorney Chris Hand, former aide to U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest Supreme Court nominee in a quarter-century. He's known on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for clear, colloquial writing, advocacy for court review of government regulations, defense of religious freedom and skepticism toward law enforcement.
"Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous discipline and has earned bipartisan support," Trump declared, announcing the nomination in his first televised prime-time address from the White House.
Gorsuch, like the other eight justices on the court, has an Ivy League law degree. The Colorado native earned his bachelor's degree from Columbia University in three years, then a law degree from Harvard. He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White, a fellow Coloradan, and Anthony Kennedy before earning a philosophy degree at Oxford University and working for a prominent Washington law firm.
Gorsuch thanked Trump for entrusting him with "a most solemn assignment." And he said, "Standing here in a house of history, I'm acutely aware of my own imperfections and pledge that if I am confirmed, I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution of laws of this great country."
Like Scalia, Gorsuch identifies himself as a judge who tries to decide cases by interpreting the Constitution and laws as they were understood when written.
Rick Mullaney, director of Jacksonville University's Public Policy Institute and News4Jax political analyst, said conservatives around the country will appreciate Gorsuch's skill set.
"As far as they're concerned, I'm sure President Trump just delivered something that was very important to them. If there was any one big issue in the 2016 presidential election, it was this and he has nominated a person from the Scalia school. That originalist thinking, that textualist thinking, is applauded by conservatives," Mullaney said.
Gorsuch has won praise from conservatives for his defense of religious freedom, including in a case involving the Hobby Lobby craft stores, which is why he'll be heavily scrutinized by Senate Democrats, Mullaney said.
"In that very same quality that will be opposed by many liberals and Democrats, so expect at these hearings to see some very close scrutiny of everything he has written and everything he has done," Mullaney said. "But a very solid pick for Donald Trump."
Hand called Trump's pick interesting and agreed that Gorsuch will face tough scrutiny. He said Republicans will cling to his credentials, while Democrats will focus on his past.
"He is an acolyte of late Justice Scalia. He is a textualist, a very conservative judge, and I think you will hear a lot of discussion of his record. He's got very strong qualifications, so the focus will be on past rulings, past writings," Hand said. "It will be very interesting to see how recent Supreme Court history will affect this nomination."
Some Democrats, still smarting over Trump's unexpected victory in the presidential election, have vowed to mount a vigorous challenge to nearly any nominee to what they view as the court's "stolen seat." President Barack Obama nominated U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland for the vacancy after Scalia's death, but Senate Republicans refused to consider the pick, saying the seat should be filled only after the November election.
"I think he's going to run into some fierce opposition from Democrats who are still angry over the fact that Justice Garland did not get a hearing and I think they are going to be angry over Donald Trump and some of the things that he has done over his first 10 days in office," Mullaney said.
If Democrats decide to filibuster Gorsuch's nomination, his fate could rest in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump has encouraged McConnell to change the rules of the Senate and make it impossible to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee - a change known in the Senate as the "nuclear option."
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, both weighed in on the president's nomination.
Nelson issued the following statement:
"The confirmation of a Supreme Court justice is an awesome responsibility that I gladly accept. I will base my decision on a full examination of Judge Gorsuch’s judicial record and his responses to senators’ questions.”
Rubio also released a statement, praising Trump's nomination of Gorusch to the Supreme Court:
“Judge Gorsuch is a highly qualified, mainstream jurist, which is why he was unanimously confirmed to the circuit court by the Senate in 2006. By all accounts he has the right temperament and experience for the job, and I’m pleased to see him nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Most importantly, he is committed to the principles of original intent and judicial restraint. This is critical, because too many in the federal judiciary today believe it is appropriate for judges to invent new policies and rights instead of interpreting and defending the Constitution as it is written.
“Unfortunately, Senate Democrats already announced they would oppose any Supreme Court nominee no matter who it is. This obstruction is neither principled nor reasonable, considering we just had an election where the future of the Supreme Court was a central issue not only at the presidential level but in every Senate contest. On the issue of this Supreme Court nomination specifically, the American people gave the president and the Republican-controlled Senate a mandate to choose a successor to Antonin Scalia. Senate Democrats should accept the results of the election and allow the process to move forward with a vote. I look forward to a fair and thorough confirmation process, and I am confident Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed by the Senate once again, this time to serve on the Supreme Court.”