WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, stated repeatedly at his confirmation hearing Tuesday that “no man is above the law,” as senators grilled him on his willingness to take on the nation’s commander in chief.
Though he largely steered clear of political landmines, Gorsuch suggested it was “disheartening” and “demoralising” when Trump dismissed as a “so-called judge” James Robart, who ruled against the White House travel ban in federal court.
The hearing unfolded along partisan lines in the second day of questioning, with Democrats dubious that the silver-haired, 49-year-old judge will protect civil liberties and social progress.
If confirmed, Gorsuch – a federal appeals judge for the past decade — would fill the seat left vacant by conservative Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016 in the middle of the presidential election campaign.
Since that time, the court has been operating with eight justices, and Democrats are still bitter over Republicans’ refusal to even consider Barack Obama’s nominee.
Pressed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy on whether the president could operate with impunity on matters such as national security, torture or surveillance, Gorsuch each time replied, “Senator, no man is above the law.”
“Nobody is above the law in this country, and that includes the president of the United States,” he added.
When asked if he was a surrogate for Trump or certain interest groups, Gorsuch responded simply, “No.”
“I have no difficulty ruling for or against any party, based on what the laws and facts in the particular case require,” he said earlier in the hearing.
“I’m heartened by the support I have received from people who recognise that there’s no such thing as a Republican judge or Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country.”
Democrats are intent on pushing Gorsuch to expand on his approach to hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and the right to bear arms.
But in keeping with tradition, Gorsuch was steadfast in declining to reveal his personal views on landmark Supreme Court decisions or speculate on how he would rule in certain hypothetical situations, since that would mar his impartiality for deciding future cases.
Progressives in the United States fear that a woman’s right to an abortion as guaranteed by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision will be at risk if Gorsuch is confirmed, tipping the court’s balance toward conservatives.
Gorsuch appeared to bristle when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked whether Trump had urged him to overturn Roe v Wade when the two met in person after his nomination.
He denied that Trump had ever asked him that, then added: “I would have walked out the door. It’s not what judges do.”
A Colorado native with an Ivy League education, Gorsuch – the youngest nominee for a generation – follows a strict interpretation of the US Constitution known as originalism, and defends so-called traditional family values.
He is known for his ability to write incisive rulings and for his traditionalist views, both of which have fueled comparisons with Scalia.
Trump announced his pick of Gorsuch in late January, just 11 days into his presidency.
But the Republican president has provoked controversy by attacking judges, who are traditionally seen as being outside the realm of politics.
Last month, Trump lashed out at the Seattle-based judge who froze the president’s first ban on travellers from seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees.
Asked about the president’s words, Gorsuch said: “when anyone criticises the honesty or integrity, the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening. I find that demoralising because I know the truth.”
Pressed by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal if he included the president in his statement, Gorsuch replied: “Anyone is anyone.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer denied that Gorsuch was referring to Trump, saying in a tweet that “he spoke broadly and never mentioned any person.”
Some Democrats are demanding a 60-vote threshold for Gorsuch’s confirmation, which they have permission to do under Senate rules.
But other Democrats, especially those from states that voted for Trump, may be unwilling to force the issue and Republican majority has expressed confidence that Gorsuch will be confirmed.
With Supreme Court justices serving lifetime appointments, Gorsuch could potentially sit on the high court for three decades or even longer.
The hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee are set to continue Wednesday.