THE big news out of Washington is the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the vacancy in the United States Supreme Court, after a yearlong fight between Republicans and Democrats on who should replace Antonin Scalia, the towering conservative jurist who met his sudden death in the dying months of the Obama administration.
There is no question as to Gorsuch’s competence; the 49-year-old Colorado native and former federal judge most certainly built a legal career with the Supreme Court in mind – Harvard law degree, Oxford doctorate, and clerkships with two senior justices, among other eminent qualifications.
But the Republican Senate led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had to trigger the so-called “nuclear option,” which meant changing the rules to prevent Democratic filibustering and force Gorsuch’s confirmation through a simple majority of 51 votes instead of 60.
Eleven months ago, President Barack Obama nominated a liberal judge, Merrick Garland, to replace Scalia, but the Republicans successfully blocked the appointment on the belief that no Supreme Court nomination should be considered in the middle of an election year.
It was a stunning but expected defeat for Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who was hell-bent on blocking the nomination mostly because it came from Donald Trump, the billionaire realtor who vanquished the Democrats in 2016.
The Democrats were painted into a corner as they had employed the controversial rule change to prevent a Republican filibuster of Obama appointments in 2013.
Why Gorsuch had to pass through the eye of the needle is the prospect of the Republicans, standard bearers of the conservative cause, wielding power in three branches of government – the White House, Congress, and now, the nine-member Supreme Court.
Gorsuch is taking Scalia’s seat not just physically but also ideologically. Like Scalia, Gorsuch espouses originalism, or a strict interpretation of the words of the US Constitution as they were understood by the framers.
In other words, Gorsuch will not be an activist judge who will legislate from the bench, such as when the court of John Roberts mandated same-sex marriage instead of leaving it up to the decision of the 50 states of the Union, and imposed universal healthcare by invoking taxation powers.
But what got the goat of Schumer and the liberal camp is Gorsuch’s being a strong proponent of natural law, the philosophy drawn from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, which holds that the laws of nature should govern the affairs of men, and what the US Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Gorsuch’s appointment is thus very consequential, one that will have repercussions outside America in the manner of Roe v. Wade (abortion) and Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage).
While most observers do not believe Gorsuch’s appointment will decisively shift the court’s balance (Justice Anthony Kennedy remains the swing vote), it’s enough to unsettle those who want to use the court to impose their will on free citizens, rather than let them keep their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.