At Neil Gorsuch’s 2006 investiture ceremony in Denver, his former law partner wanted to retire any suggestion that Gorsuch had dyed his hair gray to conceal the fact that at 39 he had become one of the country’s youngest federal appeals court judges.
“When Neil came to our firm in 1995, he had gray hair,” said the law partner, Mark C. Hansen. “In fact, he was born with silver hair, as well as an inexhaustible store of Winston Churchill quotes.”
Indeed, Gorsuch, now 49, seems naturally equipped for his spot on President Trump’s shortlist of potential Supreme Court nominees.
There is a family connection to Republican establishment politics and service in the administration of George W. Bush. There is a glittery Ivy League résumé — Columbia undergrad, Harvard Law — along with a Marshall scholarship to Oxford. There is a partnership at one of Washington’s top litigation law firms and a string of successful cases.
There is a Supreme Court clerkship; Gorsuch was hired by Justice Byron White, a fellow Colorado native, who shared him with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Kennedy stood by that day in Denver to administer the judicial oath, and he might soon be welcoming his former charge to the empty chair at the end of the Supreme Court’s mahogany bench.
But those who know Gorsuch and have studied his decade of solidly conservative opinions on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit say he more resembles the man he would replace — the late Justice Antonin Scalia — than the more moderate Kennedy.
Like Scalia, Gorsuch is a proponent of originalism — meaning that judges should attempt 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.
Critics say that those neutral considerations seem to always lead Gorsuch to conservative outcomes, a criticism that was also leveled at Scalia.
Gorsuch would like to curb the deference that courts give to federal agencies and is most noted for a strong defense of religious exemptions in cases brought by private companies and religious nonprofit groups objecting to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Gorsuch said in a speech last spring that as a judge he had tried to follow Scalia’s path.
“The great project of Justice Scalia’s career was to remind us of the differences between judges and legislators,” Gorsuch told an audience at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.
Legislators “may appeal to their own moral convictions and to claims about social utility to reshape the law as they think it should be in the future,” Gorsuch said. But “judges should do none of these things in a democratic society.”
Instead, they should use “text, structure and history” to understand what the law is, “not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best.”
Two recent studies have identified Gorsuch as the federal judge on Trump’s list of potential nominees most in tune with Scalia. And liberal Justice Elena Kagan is among many who have praised Gorsuch’s lucid and occasionally lyrical writing style.
But those who know him say he lacks Scalia’s combustible, combative style.
“He has very strong opinions, but he just treats people well in every context,” said Melissa Hart, a University of Colorado law professor. She is a Democrat who clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010.
Gorsuch was born in Colorado and lives outside Boulder with his wife, Louise, and two daughters. He is a fan of outdoor sports — fly-fishing and rowing — and said in the speech at Case Western Reserve that he was skiing last February when he received a phone call with the news of Scalia’s death.
But he spent his formative years in Washington and graduated from Georgetown Prep. His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was picked by President Ronald Reagan as the first woman to head the Environmental Protection Agency, where she had a short and rocky tenure.
After his Supreme Court clerkship, Gorsuch joined the D.C. law firm Kellogg Huber Hansen Todd Evans & Figel, where he developed a taste for litigation and eventually became a partner. He helped secure what his former law partner Hansen said was the largest antitrust award in history and won praise for his courtroom style.
Gorsuch did a short stint as a high-ranking official in the Justice Department and then was nominated by Bush to the appeals court. He sailed through on a voice vote in the full Senate and took his seat on the Denver-based court in August 2006.
Gorsuch has not ruled on the topic of abortion. But activists on both sides of the issue believe they know where he stands.
They point to language in his book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” in which he opines that “all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
Additionally, his rulings on behalf of those who challenged the Obamacare mandate that employee insurance coverage provide all approved contraceptives seemed instructive. He noted that would require the objecting businesses to “underwrite payments for drugs or devices that can have the effect of destroying a fertilized human egg.”
Gorsuch’s opinions favoring the owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores and the nonprofit religious group Little Sisters of the Poor took the same sort of broad reading of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.
In Gorsuch’s words, the law “doesn’t just apply to protect popular religious beliefs: it does perhaps its most important work in protecting unpopular religious beliefs, vindicating this nation’s long-held aspiration to serve as a refuge of religious tolerance.”