STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In seven words to a Senate committee this morning, Judge Neil Gorsuch summarized his philosophy as he'd like to present it. In an answer to a question, he said, I have one client - it's the law. President Trump's Supreme Court nominee describes himself as a judge who will go exactly where the law allows and not beyond. Senators have plenty of questions seeking more details over what that means in his particular case. NPR's Ailsa Chang is following the hearings. She's at the Capitol. Hi, Ailsa.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: How's the hearing going?
CHANG: Well, no surprise Republicans are setting Gorsuch up to expound on the independence of the judiciary, on the importance of having a judge who doesn't inject politics into law and on the importance of not forcing a Supreme Court nominee to talk about how he will rule in future cases.
Now, Democrats on the other hand, are among other things pushing him on their central argument against him, that Gorsuch favors corporate interests over the little guy, that he will favor the employer over the employee, the big company over the consumer. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top-ranked Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, asked Gorsuch to make the case that he will protect the little guy. Here she is.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
NEIL GORSUCH: I know a case or two has been mentioned yesterday. Respectfully, I'd suggest that does not represent the body of my work. I've written 2,700 - I've participated in 2,700 opinions over 10 and a half years. And if you want cases where I've ruled for the little guy as well as the big guy, there are plenty of them, Senator.
CHANG: And that's kind of the central logic of Gorsuch's entire approach to this confirmation hearing. And that is a truly fair judge is not always going to reach the outcome that is popular. He is not always going to side with the sympathetic party. A judge that is tied to the specific facts and the specific law case by case will naturally reach outcomes that don't always settle well with, you know, someone who cares about the little guy.
INSKEEP: What has he said when asked about hot-button issues like abortion?
CHANG: So abortion is very interesting because he has never ruled specifically on a woman's right to have an abortion. But Democrats point to other cases and other writings that suggest he might overturn Roe v. Wade. Now, Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, set him up today to talk about Roe in a very general way. He asked Gorsuch, is Roe precedent? And Gorsuch says, yes, it is. But Dianne Feinstein again pushed Gorsuch on this. She wanted to know, well, how important is Roe as legal precedent? Here she is.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Do you view Roe as having super precedent?
GORSUCH: Well, Senator, super precedent is a...
FEINSTEIN: In numbers, 44...
GORSUCH: It has been reaffirmed many times. I can say that, yes.
FEINSTEIN: Yes, dozens.
CHANG: All right, so super precedent, this idea that there's some precedent that's even more important than other precedent. So he's not exactly promising in that particular exchange that he would not overturn Roe. But he is acknowledging that it would be hard.
INSKEEP: I'm remembering John Roberts, who said something like this is settled law when he was asked at his confirmation hearing. Can I ask you about something else, Ailsa?
INSKEEP: We heard Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut senator, on the program earlier today. He was not satisfied with what Gorsuch had set up to this point about his independence. Should he end up ruling in a case involving the man who's appointing him - President Trump - has Gorsuch calmed any of those concerns this morning?
CHANG: In a very general way, yes. He says that absolutely a judge should remain independent from the executive branch. He talks about the separation of powers. But Democrats will ask Gorsuch about his positions on Trump's policies. They'll push him on whether a law banning Muslims from the U.S. is constitutional. And Gorsuch has very deliberately declined to answer those questions specifically.
INSKEEP: And also just trying to decline to take any position then, that's essentially the strategy here?
CHANG: Exactly, which makes him no different from previous Supreme Court nominees.
INSKEEP: For many, many years. Ailsa, thanks very much.
CHANG: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang at the Capitol this morning.
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