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Point-Counterpoint: Gorsuch upholds law, not ideology, in his rulings

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Meghan Sunners | Visual Editor

Meghan Sunners | Visual Editor

Meghan Sunners | Visual Editor

By Christian Snyder | Columnist

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Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, his seat on the Supreme Court has remained vacant. After the GOP-led Congress denied former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat Merrick Garland a confirmation hearing, Obama’s time to get a Democrat onto the Supreme Court ran out.

In one of his first major acts as president, Donald Trump nominated Colorado appellate judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the seat. In another Republican-majority Congress, there is more hope for Gorsuch’s confirmation. With the Senate Judiciary Committee expected to send the nomination to the full Senate on Monday, Senators could reach a final decision by the end of the week. But, depending on what the Democrats decide to do, the path to the bench is not yet completely clear for Gorsuch.

This is one part of a point-counterpoint focusing on liberals views on the Gorsuch nomination. Read the other side by columnist Nick Eustis here.

After watching the denial of Judge Merrick Garland to sit on the Supreme Court and Judge Neil Gorsuch’s subsequent vetting process, I’ve learned one thing — the power of “the bubble” is strong.

This bubble is the inability for people to see balanced news, mainly because their political views influence which news outlets they pay attention to and what comes up on their social media. Because of my liberal leanings, I’ve been mostly exposed to the Democratic side of things. I’ve heard arguments that Gorsuch favors the wealthy over vulnerable workers and that his commitment to religious beliefs prevents a fair jurisprudence.

But one think I rarely see from the liberal media is a well-argued case against Gorsuch. My left-leaning Facebook friends, liberal writers at major newspapers and even professors have merely levied the least attractive outcomes of his cases against him. A column in the New York Times argued that Democrats should oppose Gorsuch because “the process that led to his nomination was illegitimate,” in regards to the Republican filibuster of the Garland nomination.

I’m not convinced. Democrats shouldn’t oppose Gorsuch’s nomination simply because they believe the seat was rightly Garland’s. To let the politics surrounding the nomination process be the deciding factor trivializes the important matter of who will fill the vital Supreme Court seat that’s been open for more than a year already.

Instead, we should recognize that in each of those unattractive outcomes Democrats use to oppose Gorsuch, he voted in accordance with the law and not in line with any political ideology. He applies the law exactly as it’s written, and that’s a quality we should all want in our nation’s judges.

Take the instantly viral case of Transam Trucking, Inc., v. Administrative Review Board, U.S. Department of Labor and Alphonse Maddin, better known as the “Case of the Frozen Trucker.” A trucker was fired for his decision to abandon his trailer after the brakes froze, unhitching the truck from the trailer to drive to safety. He then sued Transam for his termination, claiming that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration act protected him.

In the case, Gorsuch was the only judge to vote in favor of Transam, seemingly prioritizing the rights of the corporation over the worker — a decision many Democrats harshly criticize him for.

But it’s not Gorsuch’s job to protect the average worker, regardless of where on the bench his ideology lies.

Like the late Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch is a textualist and originalist, meaning he interprets laws based on what the meaning of the statute would have been understood as at the time that it was written. The law in question was the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which protects employees if they “refuse to operate a vehicle because the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury.”

When a textualist and originalist like Gorsuch reads this section of STAA, they focus on the phrase “refuses.” In the Transam case, Maddin did not refuse to operate his vehicle — he unhitched the trailer and drove to refuel. Based on the text of the statute, Gorsuch believed Maddin waived his STAA protections when he decided to operate his vehicle, so he felt obligated to rule in favor of the company.

And Transam isn’t the only case Democrats have used to try to attack Gorsuch’s morals. He’s ruled in favor of a business choosing to withhold contraception from their employees in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and ruled against an autistic child seeking retribution from a school supposedly failing to provide adequate accommodations. In each of these cases, like Transam, Gorsuch felt an obligation to adhere strictly to the text of the statute, leading him to even apologize for having to make some of these decisions.

But if you’re a Democrat like me, you’ll never see the names of these cases. You’ll hear that Gorsuch favors corporations, is committed to religion or that he’s not in favor of protecting workers. What you won’t hear is a key aspect of legal theory — that there are different, equally valid methods of legal interpretation.

Democrats shouldn’t deny Gorsuch the vacancy because the process leading to his nomination was illegitimate, or because his adherence to textualism sometimes has required him to make controversial decisions. Time and time again, Gorsuch has proved that his political ideology plays little part in his decision making, even in questionable cases that seem to deliver Republican victories. In these cases, the problem isn’t that Gorsuch favors the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, or the employer over the employee — the problem is that our laws favor the advantaged over the disadvantaged.

“My job isn’t to write the law, it’s to apply the law,” said Gorsuch when asked about the Transam case in his confirmation hearing.

This may not be the answer that Democrats are looking for, but it is the truth. By confirming Gorsuch, our representatives, both Republican and Democrat, will ensure that the politics of the election cycle no longer affect our most resolute of political institutions — the Supreme Court.

Christian primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.

Write to him at cjs197@pitt.edu.

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