Long before he began his legal career, Neil Gorsuch was a student at Columbia University in New York, where he wrote columns for the campus newspaper that revealed a budding conservatism and the seeds of his originalist approach to interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
On Tuesday, President Trump nominated Gorsuch, a Colorado federal appellate judge, to fill the seat left vacant on the Supreme Court by Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death last February. The nomination set off inquiries about Gorsuch’s background, and how he might shape the future voice of the high court.
Conservative lawmakers overwhelmingly praised the choice of the 49-year-old judge, while Democrats have pushed back over anger that Republicans stalled and blocked Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s pick to replace Scalia.
Legal scholars have described Gorsuch as “a proponent of originalism — meaning that judges should try to interpret the words of the Constitution as they were understood at the time they were written — and a textualist, who considers only the words of the law being reviewed, not legislators’ intent or the consequences of the decision,” The Washington Post reported shortly after his nomination.
Many of those tendencies can be seen as early as Gorsuch’s teenage years.
As a college freshman in the mid-1980s, Gorsuch ran for a seat on the student senate. The undergraduate-run newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, asked all candidates to respond to questions about major campus issues of the time: For instance, would students benefit from having a longer reading period before exams? Should students with AIDS be required to report their illness to campus health services?
In his survey responses, a young Gorsuch was unique among his peers, both in his stances and his ability to articulate them. For example, in the opening question — on whether the U.S. Marine Corps should be allowed to recruit on campus — most of the student senate candidates rejected the idea, citing concerns about the military’s policies that at the time discriminated against homosexual people. Gorsuch, however, turned in a long answer that recast the question into one about First Amendment rights.
“The question here is not whether ‘the Marines should be allowed to recruit on campus’ but whether a University and its community, so devoted to the freedom of individuals to pursue their own chosen lifestyles and to speak freely, has the right or obligation to determine who may speak on campus or what may be said,” Gorsuch wrote. “To fulfill an immediate end, we are likely to forget the underlying principle that every human being, according to our nation’s proclamations, and reinforced by our University’s standards, has an inalienable right to express himself or herself — whether we agree or not. Free speech works; it works better than any form of censorship or suppression; and in exercising vigorously, the truth is bound to emerge.”
In the survey, Gorsuch also campaigned passionately for students to have greater access to the administration and for student rules of conduct to be clarified so they could be more readily interpreted.
“Too many students last Spring complained that the Rules do not explicitly state how alleged violation[s] are to be treated,” he wrote in response to another survey question. “The University must be able to ensure each student fair and equal treatment; it is difficult to do so now[,] many claim[,] because of great ambiguities. If changes are then a must to ensure that changes are made in just a manner.”
(To a question regarding whether more female and minority authors should be represented in the university’s core curriculum, Gorsuch was much more succinct: “If possible, yes.”)
Shortly after that, Gorsuch apparently was disqualified from the university council race because he “broke postering rules,” according to an article in the Mar. 24, 1986, issue of the Spectator. Although half of the student council voted to restate his candidacy, a three-fourths vote was needed to overturn the election commission’s recommendation.
Despite that, Gorsuch would write an occasional column for the paper called “Fed up.” Although he had once seemed to express support for Cuban refugees rallying against Fidel Castro, in his later columns, Gorsuch rarely hid a disdain for campus activists, often using quotation marks when describing progressives or progressive issues. In 1987, he criticized protesters who had tried to block the eviction of a tenant from her university-owned apartment.
“Our protestors [sic], it seems, have a monopoly on righteousness,” Gorsuch wrote in April 1988. “In all their muddled thinking, however, our ‘progressives’ have become anything but truly progressive. Consider for example, their ‘issue’ of the elections scandal. Columbia College election rules are a swamp of bureaucratic pettiness, unequaled even by the federal government. They are confusing, often unduly severe, and clearly in need of reform. Some candidates in this election may have manipulated them for personal gain. But is it ‘progressive’ for a minority of students to unilaterally decide to invalidate this election? Sounds more like vigilante justice to me.”
In a subsequent issue of the Spectator, fellow student J. Laurens Troost blasted Gorsuch’s column in a letter to the editor, saying that Gorsuch displayed “a fundamental misunderstanding of progressive efforts at reform.”
“His statement that there are no ‘fresh ideas or important notions’ to be considered is purely subjective, biased, and based on misrepresentation of the issues,” Troost wrote. “It is nonsense to claim that those interested in a reformed fraternity system are ‘morally misguided’; by the same token, people striving for racial integration in lunch counters and schools or an end to exclusive, anti-semetic [sic] clubs are quite insane.”
The Spectator was not Gorsuch’s only outlet at Columbia. In 1986, he co-founded the Columbia Federalist paper with two other students. Although today the Federalist has morphed into an Onion-esque satirical campus tabloid (one current headline: “Columbia Vows to Switch to Cage-Free Adjuncts“), its original purpose was to be “content neutral,” according to a history of the paper. The history noted that early Federalist articles were, “for the most part, rabidly conservative.”
A December 1989 article in the Spectator noted that the founding of the Federalist had helped campus conservatives rise “from the rubble heap of 1968″ and given them a voice again in a predominantly liberal environment.
“The key focal point of contemporary conservatism at Columbia was the establishment of the Federalist Paper in 1986 by Neil Gorsuch, Andrew Levy, and P.T. Waters,” Adam J. Levitt wrote for the Spectator. “While the current enactment of the paper may have strayed from its original focus, the Federalist established the validity of a conservative view at Columbia, a view that has only grown in strength since then.”
Levitt quoted Gorsuch himself later on what he thought the legacy of the Federalist had been.
“I’m not sure that conservatism and Columbia can be easily connected,” Gorsuch said, according to Levitt. “However, the debate has been opened up considerably, and this is good. Due to the expansion of this balanced debate, Columbia is a better place than it was ten years ago. While conservatism may not be the dominant campus belief, its healthy to have the mix that currently exists.”
Gorsuch would go on to attend law school at Harvard, study at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship and attain a Supreme Court clerkship — building a résumé that was “as good as I have ever seen,” Trump boasted on prime-time television Tuesday.
Gorsuch appeared with his wife, Louise, by his side to accept Trump’s nomination.
“Standing here in a house of history, and acutely aware of my own imperfections, I pledge that if I am confirmed I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great country,” Gorsuch said.
He spoke of his experience as a federal judge and his admiration for those who administered justice “equally to rich and poor alike … without respect to their personal political beliefs” across the western United States.
“I think of them tonight,” Gorsuch said. “Of course, the Supreme Court’s work is vital not just to a region of the country, but to the whole, vital to the protection of the people’s liberties under law and to the continuity of our Constitution, the greatest charter of human liberty the world has ever known.”