Last week, as U.S. Senate confirmation hearings ended for Judge Neil Gorsuch, students on both ends of the University of Michigan’s campus political spectrum expressed degrees of satisfaction, but also disapproval of President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee.
LSA Dean Andrew Martin said in an interview on the LSA website he predicts Gorsuch would be the second most-conservative member of the court, according to a model he helped develop with Kevin Quinn from the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law to measure the ideologies of Supreme Court justices.
“Our models suggest that he will be the second most-conservative justice on the court, in between Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, which is exactly the same position that Scalia took on the court,” Martin said.
LSA junior Enrique Zalamea, president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said he likes Gorsuch and favors justices who closely adhere to the Constitution.
“We need to have more strict constructionism on the Supreme Court, especially to fill that gap that Scalia left,” Zalamea said. “It’s really essential to have somebody who is traditional in that sense, somebody who really sticks to what this country was founded on.”
Conversely, LSA junior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said she believes strict constructionism restricts how the Constitution can be interpreted during changing times and with changing opinions.
“I think it’s very limiting,” Conybeare said. “Obviously, people’s opinions and times change and I think the more liberal justices interpret the Constitution differently with the changing opinion — I’m not trying to say we should change the Constitution, but just the interpretation.”
In a similar vein, LSA sophomore Brad McPherson, co-founder of Progressives at the University of Michigan, said he believes a strict interpretation of the Constitution inhibits advancement.
“To me ‘originalism’ sounds like ‘preventing progress,’ ” McPherson said. “Even when it passes the normal legislative means, (Gorsuch) uses the court basically to stop what he views as overreach, essentially — I think that’s wrong.”
Zalamea contested arguments such as these and said the document does not inhibit progress, but simply reinforces values and rights, like the Second Amendment, that he feels are invaluable to democracy in the United States.
“It’s absolutely not an impediment to progress at all to say that we need to stick strictly to the Constitution,” Zalamea said. “Our country was founded on great values, founded under God and the Bill of Rights, and that’s something we need to stick to.”
Another point of contention for liberals is the blockage of then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland by Senate Republicans last year following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
McPherson said he feels Republicans stole the court seat from Democrats and considers the appointment of Gorsuch illegitimate.
“To me, the entire choice of Neil Gorsuch is illegitimate, because the Republicans stole that Supreme Court seat,” McPherson said.
Conybeare agreed and said she believes it is not out of the norm for a president to nominate justices at the end of their terms, despite what Republicans claimed in order to justify their actions.
“I dislike that Gorsuch was nominated, just because of the whole situation with Merrick Garland,” Conybeare said. “It is not unusual for a president, toward the end of his presidency, to nominate a Supreme Court justice.”
Engineering sophomore Jack Kuchta, a self-identified conservative, contested this point and said he didn’t think the actions of Senate Republicans were out of the norm.
“There have been very few times in our history that we have allowed a president who is at the end of their final term to appoint a Supreme Court justice, and they almost always out of pure courtesy allow it to move on to the upcoming president — be it a Democrat or Republican,” Kuchta said.
With one of his main reasons of voting for Trump being the promise of a conservative court nominee, Kuchta said he holds Gorsuch in high regard and he feels his vote for Trump was vindicated.
“He doesn’t want his own personal opinions to sway a vote, which is very important,” Kuchta said. “We should be sticking lawfully to the Constitution.”
The next decision Republicans face is how to navigate the possibility of a Democratic filibuster, which Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) said the Democrats were planning.
It currently takes 60 votes in the Senate to confirm a Supreme Court justice, but Republicans may vote to change the chamber rules to bypass a filibuster, then requiring only a 50-vote majority. In this scenario, Gorsuch could be confirmed without any Democratic support, because there are currently 52 Republican senators.
Martin predicts Gorsuch will almost certainly be confirmed by the Senate, one way or another.
“If I had to put odds on it, barring some sort of unforeseen surprise, I would bet that he will be confirmed with about 95 percent certainty,” he said.
Agreeing with the decision by the Democrats to filibuster, McPherson said Republicans cannot be rewarded for blocking the appointment of Garland.
“I definitely agree with the decision to filibuster,” McPherson said. “The Republicans can’t be rewarded for stealing a pick, that’s just how it is.”
Zalamea said he thinks the Democratic filibuster is purely out of spite and that Gorsuch’s character, including his unanimous bipartisan confirmation to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Senate in 2006, shows he deserves to be voted on to the bench.
“I think any filibusters the Democrats would do is based purely out of spite of the Trump administration,” Zalamea said. “You have a man whose character speaks for itself, a man who’s been unanimously voted into the tenth circuit court — and here you have the Democrats threatening to filibuster.”
Kuchta took on a similar tone and said Democrats should be thankful Gorsuch is more moderate when compared to other potential conservative picks, such as Alabama Judge William Pryor Jr.
“Gorsuch is a strong choice, but not as conservative as some of the other choices could have been, so I’d say the Democrats were even fairly lucky with Trump’s choice,” Kuchta said. “I think the Democrats should be very thankful that they got someone who is more moderate and a Constitutionalist who doesn’t allow their personal views to affect their vote.”
Nevertheless, Conybeare said she believes Gorsuch threatens the progressive values she holds and does not like his nomination.
“He was handpicked by ultra-conservative groups and he does align closely with Scalia,” Conybeare said. “I think the choice of Gorsuch threatens some of the progressive values Democrats hold, and future decisions, which is upsetting.”
Martin said the impact of Gorsuch will not significantly alter the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court from what it was when Scalia was on the bench, but the balance could be significantly altered depending on which party receives the next pick.
“The impact of this nomination is not that great ideologically,” Martin said. “The real question is what happens when the next justice departs.”