Donald Trump has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, seizing an unusual early opportunity to put conservatives back in the majority on America’s top court.
In a primetime address late Tuesday that was part jurisprudence, part reality show, Trump tapped the 49-year-old appeals court judge from Denver, Colorado.
If confirmed by the Senate, he will fill the seat made vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia nearly a year ago and tilt the balance of the court five-to-four in conservatives’ favour.
The elegant, silver-haired jurist with a flair for writing incisive rulings is the youngest nominee in a generation. His appointment could have a major impact on cases ranging from business regulation to gender rights to gun control.
After unprecedented hyping of the announcement, Trump invited Gorsuch and his wife to emerge dramatically before an audience in the East Room of the White House.
Despite the razzmatazz, Gorsuch was a remarkably orthodox pick for a president who has scythed through norms and precedent during his brief time in office. Like Scalia, Gorsuch is considered an “originalist”, guided in his legal thinking by the constitution’s original intent and meaning.
For Trump, the selection is payback to evangelical Christian and conservative Republicans who backed his bid for the presidency – at times reluctantly.
Job for life
The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of many of the most sensitive issues of US life and law. Its members are named to life terms so their influence is long-lasting.
Given the advanced age of several sitting justices, Trump could potentially make several appointments during his term, shaping the court’s direction for a generation. Once confirmed, however, justices enjoy independence and some have proved politically unpredictable.
With an eye to a bitter Congressional fight, Gorsuch presented himself as someone who is fair-minded and self-deprecating.
‘Very serious doubts’
Much Democratic opposition to Gorsuch is likely due to the refusal by Congressional Republicans, following Scalia’s death, to give then president Barack Obama’s court pick a confirmation hearing.
Democrats, who are in a minority in both chambers of Congress, are still smarting from Republican treatment of Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland.
Garland has since returned to his old job as chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, but Democrats could yet pick a fight.
Although Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate, they need 60 to confirm a nominee.
That means Gorsuch must be able to win some Democratic votes – a task made tougher by the row over Trump’s ban on travellers from several Muslim countries.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said it was up to Gorsuch to “prove himself to be within the legal mainstream” and “vigorously defend the Constitution” from presidential abuses.