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Neil Gorsuch took his seat on the nation's highest court today. He quickly proved himself to be an active, persistent questioner. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Gorsuch emerged from behind the red velvet curtains with his eight colleagues and took his seat at the far right of the bench where the court's most junior justice always sits, whatever his politics. Despite his white hair, Gorsuch looked for all the world like a kid on his first day of high school, proud to be with the big guys and sitting tall with a tiny grin on his face.
Chief Justice John Roberts welcomed Gorsuch to, quote, "our common calling." And then it was off to the races with three cases interesting only to true legal nerds. Indeed the justices may have been the liveliest looking people in the courtroom, though Justice Samuel Alito at one point could be seen eyes closed, rocking gently in his high-backed chair.
All three cases involved technical and convoluted points of law that, well, to say the least, are not made for radio. Eleven minutes into the morning session, Gorsuch asked a string of questions in a case involving which court or courts should hear discrimination and civil service claims brought by government employees. Gorsuch repeatedly suggested it would be, quote, "a lot simpler," or, quote, "a lot easier if we just follow the text of the statute." But as the lawyers on both sides and other justices pointed out, the statute has multiple provisions. They're interdependent. And nothing about them is simple or easy.
This is unbelievably complicated, lamented Justice Alito. The one thing to me that's perfectly clear about this case is that nobody who's not a lawyer and no ordinary lawyer could read these statutes and know what they're supposed to do. Who wrote this statute, somebody that takes pleasure out of pulling the wings off of flies?
Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to agree, at one point telling counsel, if we go down your route and I'm writing the opinion - which I hope I'm not - Justice Gorsuch at this point again suggested the simple solution is just to read the words in the statute. But Gorsuch had a relatively novel idea of what a statute means when it says to apply one provision of the law subject to another.
Justice Elena Kagan noted that the court has had a contrary interpretation for decades. To adopt a new interpretation, she said, would be, quote, "a kind of revolution to the extent you can have a revolution in this kind of case," she added wryly.
Nina Totenberg NPR News, Washington.
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