Judge Neil Gorsuch made it through one of the most hotly contested confirmation hearings in American history last week to become the newest member of the Supreme Court. On Monday, he was sworn in by Justices John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy in separate ceremonies, completing a political pathway set in motion by the death of Antonin Scalia last February.
Now conservatives are waiting to see if Gorsuch can live up to the mighty legacy left by the man whose place he will take on the nation’s highest court.
Democrats tried to block the Gorsuch confirmation for several reasons, not the least of which is their party-wide opposition to President Donald Trump. They also wanted payback for Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
But most of all, they wanted to keep Republicans from filling that final seat for as long as possible; they knew that the Supreme Court would soon be considering several high-profile, important cases that could result in a landmark decision or two.
Democrats understood that the 2016 election would inevitably keep the Supreme Court in a conservative-leaning direction, but they wanted to postpone that result for as long as possible.
It failed, of course, and now Gorsuch will be seated for at least two upcoming cases with wide-ranging implications.
The first of them is Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley. A religious preschool in Missouri is suing because the state denied them a grant provided to other nonprofit organizations. The state rejected Trinity’s request for funds to improve their playground equipment, saying it would violate the separation of church and state. Lawyers for the church, however, say the state is picking favorites and unfairly punishing religious organizations.
Gorsuch has a history of ruling in favor of religious freedom, and conservatives are hoping that he will do the same here.
The second major case is Maslenjak v. U.S., which is about a Bosnian immigrant who was stripped of her citizenship when officials learned that she lied about how she came to the United States. Prior court rulings have said that a naturalized citizen can be stripped of citizenship when providing false information.
On this one, Gorsuch’s leanings are a mystery; he has ruled on few immigration cases in his career on the 10th Circuit. But however he rules, it could give observers a clue as to where he might land on future immigration cases – including that of President Trump’s executive order placing a temporary ban on travelers from certain countries in the Middle East.
And of course, those two cases are only the tip of the iceberg.
Gorsuch won’t be a rubber stamp for “the conservative viewpoint” anymore than his colleagues on the Supreme Court, but hopefully he will bring the same sense of constitutional originalism to his work in Washington that he brought to his career thus far. If he does, the court will be in good hands for years to come.