Democrats raised questions on Monday about whether Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee, would rule against abortion rights and gun control while favoring corporations as his Senate confirmation hearing began, with the court's ideological balance at stake.
Judiciary Committee Republicans praised Gorsuch, the conservative appeals court judge from Colorado nominated by Trump on Jan. 31, and called him well qualified for the lifetime job as a justice. Despite slim chances of blocking the nomination with Republicans controlling the Senate, Democrats raised questions about Gorsuch's suitability for the court.
The panel's top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, noted that Gorsuch has the chance to join the high court only because the Senate Republicans last year refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nomination of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland.
"Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable, mainstream conservative or is he not," Feinstein, said in her opening statement.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the committee's plain-spoken chairman, said the panel is likely to vote on the nomination on April 3, with the full Senate vote likely soon after. Gorsuch was set to give his opening statement later in the day and face questioning by the committee on Tuesday.
Democrats highlighted cases on which Gorsuch has ruled and questioned the influence of conservative interest groups in advising Trump on his selection.
Feinstein emphasized abortion in particular. Conservatives have long opposed the landmark 1973 ruling called Roe v. Wade in which the court found that a woman has a right under the U.S. Constitution to terminate a pregnancy. Feinstein called that ruling and others since then buttressing legalized abortion "super precedents" that deserve special deference.
Fellow Democrat Patrick Leahy said he was worried that Gorsuch’s conservative method of interpreting the Constitution "goes beyond being a philosophy and becomes an agenda" that is anti-abortion, anti-environment and pro-business.
"Will you allow the government to intrude on Americans' personal privacy and freedoms? Will you elevate the rights of corporations over those of real people? Will you rubberstamp a president whose administration has asserted that executive power is not subject to judicial review?" Leahy said.
If Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative majority on the court. The seat has been vacant for 13 months, since the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
'A REPUBLICAN STRATEGY'
Many Democrats contend Trump's party "stole" a Supreme Court seat by freezing out Garland.
"Your nomination is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government," Senator Dick Durbin told Gorsuch. "That is why the Senate Republicans kept this Supreme Court seat vacant for more than a year and why they left 30 judicial nominees who had received bipartisan approval of this committee to die on the Senate calendar as President Obama left office."
Democrats focused on one 2016 employment case as an example of what they say indicates a pro-business bias. Gorsuch voted against a truck driver fired after he disobeyed a supervisor and abandoned his trailer at the side of a road after the brakes froze.
Citing Gorsuch's role in a 2013 decision involving arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby to allow private companies to object on religious grounds to providing insurance covering birth control, Durbin said he saw a pattern in Gorsuch's judicial opinions to dismiss efforts by workers to "recognize their rights or defend their freedoms."
The hearing could go as long as four days, providing classic Washington political theater.
Gorsuch, a cool-headed and amiable jurist, entered the packed hearing room accompanied by Grassley, greeting members of the audience and shaking hands with panel members, as a phalanx of photographers snapped pictures. As the hearing got underway, he introduced his wife and other members of his family.
In his opening statement, Grassley said it was important to have jurists who do not exceed their powers. "Judges are not free to re-write statutes to get results they believe are more just. Judges are not free to re-order regulations to make them more fair. For sure, judges aren't free to update the Constitution. That's not their job."
"His grasp on the separation of powers, including judicial independence, enlivens his body of work," Grassley said of Gorsuch.
About 30 people in the audience wore red T-shirts emblazoned with #StopGorsuch.
Gorsuch likely will try to engage members of the Judiciary Committee without being pinned down on specifics that could trip up his nomination to the lifetime post.
Had Garland been confirmed, the court would have leaned to the left for the first time in decades. Since Scalia's death, the court has been split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals. The ideological leaning of the court could be pivotal in determining the outcome of a wide array of matters including the death penalty, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations, transgender rights, voting rights, immigration, religious liberty, presidential powers and others.
Republicans hold 52 of the Senate's 100 seats. Under present rules, Gorsuch would need 60 votes in order to secure confirmation. If Democrats stay unified and Gorsuch cannot muster 60, Republicans could change the rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)