Ed O’Keefe and Robert Barnes, the Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate confirmed Neil M. Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, capping more than a year of bitter partisan bickering over the ideological balance of the nation’s highest court.
Senators voted to confirm Gorsuch, 49, a Denver-based judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, who will become the 113th person to serve on the Supreme Court.
Gorsuch, 49, a Denver-based judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, became the 113th Supreme Court justice Friday. He replaces the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who’s sudden death in February 2016 sparked a yearlong partisan fight over the ideological balance of the court.
Gorsuch is expected to be sworn-in in the coming days, allowing him to join the high court for the final weeks of its term, which ends in June. It’s likely he will want to be sworn-in quickly — even if a ceremonial event is held later — so that he can get to work. The court is scheduled to meet Thursday for a private session to decide whether to accept or reject a long list of cases that would be heard next term. And the last round of oral arguments for this term is scheduled to begin in just 10 days, on April 17.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. is the most recent justice to have been confirmed during a Supreme Court term. He was sworn-in the same day as his confirmation, and a ceremonial event with President George W. Bush was held the next day.
Gorsuch’s confirmation is a marquee accomplishment for President Donald Trump and his young administration, capping a momentous week for the White House that included the first military airstrikes authorized by the president. And the vote is a big legislative win for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who refused to even consider President Barack Obama’s nominee after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, leaving the seat open for Trump to fill.
On the court, Gorsuch will be pressed into immediate service and could hold the deciding vote on several important issues.
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The justices will meet privately on Thursday to accept or reject cases for next term — among them: a petition from gun-rights activists asking the court to find for the first time that the Second Amendment right to keep a gun for self-defense extends to carrying firearms outside the home. There is also a plea on behalf of business owners who want to be able to refuse their wedding services to same-sex couples.
In the coming weeks, the court is likely to decide whether to intervene in a lower court’s decision that voting-law changes in North Carolina were passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in order to diminish the influence of minority voters.
And when the justices gather April 17 for their last round of oral arguments, Gorsuch stands to hold the deciding vote in the term’s major case involving the separation of church and state. Missouri cited a clause in its state constitution barring any government support for any religious group to eliminate a church-affiliated school’s application to a program to improve playground safety. The case was accepted when Scalia was alive, and the delay in scheduling it for oral argument might indicate the court is divided.
Gorsuch’s confirmation was all-but-assured on Thursday, when Republicans cleared the way for him by overcoming a historic Democratic blockade and changing the rules of the Senate.
The long-anticipated rules change now means that all presidential nominees for executive branch positions and the federal courts need only a simple majority vote to be confirmed by senators.
The GOP decision to ram through the rules change is also likely to further divide an increasingly partisan Senate. Several senators openly fretted that eliminating the minority party’s right to block high court nominees could lead to the end of filibusters on legislation — effectively transforming the Senate’s traditional role in the legislative process as the slower, more deliberative chamber.
Gorsuch’s nomination was announced by Trump in late January and earned immediate, widespread praise from Republican lawmakers excited by the prospect of maintaining the court’s previous ideological balance and relieved by how well the White House orchestrated the nomination.
Drawing from a list of 21 names first released during the presidential campaign, Trump introduced Gorsuch to the country in a slickly produced prime time address from the White House East Room, attended by GOP senators who eagerly sang Gorsuch’s praises to television cameras shortly after Trump left the room.
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In the last four months, Gorsuch met with 78 senators and sat for three days of confirmation hearings last month, answering nearly 1,200 questions and submitting another 70 pages of written responses. But his repeated refusal to engage on specific Supreme Court cases or policy issues frustrated Democrats concerned that his lighter judicial record on matters, ranging from abortion rights, to environmental protection and campaign finance law, coupled with his refusal to denounce Trump personally for his attacks on federal judges, made it difficult to determine his judicial philosophy and potential to be an independent check on the White House.
The unflinching discipline displayed by McConnell, R-Ky., in rejecting pleas for a hearing on Judge Merrick Garland enraged Democrats even more and prompted demands for a Gorsuch blockade by their progressive base. But the Democrats’ high-profile filibuster had fizzled by midday Thursday after McConnell moved to alter the rules and received the backing of his entire Republican caucus.
As he left the Senate chamber, the usually reserved McConnell flashed a bit of showmanship — he high-fived some colleagues, awkwardly embraced Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and gave a thumbs-up to photographers.
The majority leader argued that ending the filibuster for high court nominees will actually decrease partisan tensions in the Senate and return the upper chamber to a time when filibusters weren’t so commonly used to block nominations.
“This will be the first and last partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination,” McConnell vowed ahead of Thursday’s votes.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., responded by warning that “the consequences for the Senate and for the future of the Supreme Court will be far-reaching.”
And Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who supports Gorsuch but opposed the rules change, said it was “everybody’s fault” that the Senate invoked the “nuclear option” and no longer requires 60 votes to confirm Supreme Court nominees. Manchin declared that Republicans will “rue the day that this happened” if they lose their majority.
George Washington “had it right” about the Senate, Manchin said. “We’re the saucer. Should be, anyway. Should be cooling off that tea ... The hot tea’s going to scald you now. It’s going to burn you.”
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Republicans, determined to restore the conservative tilt of the Supreme Court since Scalia’s unexpected death, worked in lockstep on Thursday to see that Gorsuch would ultimately be confirmed. They remained remarkably united on the three votes needed to set Gorsuch on a glide path to confirmation.
By 1 p.m. on Thursday, most of the drama was over. On a vote of 55 to 45, all Republicans and three Democrats voted to proceed to final debate on Gorsuch. Senators at that point had the option of using as many as 30 hours for debate.
But they opted to cut it short — with a recess looming, Gorsuch was set for confirmation during the lunch hour on Friday, allowing senators to start leaving Washington for a two-week recess.