President Donald Trump announced Judge Neil Gorsuch as his choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, one of the most consequential moves of his young administration and a decision with ramifications that could long outlast his time in office.
Gorsuch and another finalist, Thomas Hardiman, were both summoned to Washington ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, adding a dash of drama to the announcement from the reality television star turned president. Their travel to Washington was confirmed by a White House official, who was not authorized to discuss the Supreme Court pick and insisted on remaining anonymous.
Gorsuch, 49, serves on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. A conservative with a writer’s flair and polished legal pedigree, Gorsuch would be the youngest Supreme Court nominee in a quarter-century.
Hardiman, a 51-year-old with a conservative track record and working-class background, serves alongside Trump’s sister on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Both were appointed federal appeals court judges by President George W. Bush. Trump is also said to have considered a third judge, William Pryor, but Pryor’s standing appeared to slip in recent days, in part because his reputation as a staunch conservative seemed likely to make him a rich target for Democratic senators in a confirmation hearing.
The judges appeared on Trump’s list of 21 possible choices that he made public during the campaign, and each has met with him to discuss the vacancy that arose when Antonin Scalia died nearly a year ago.
Trump’s pick will restore a general conservative tilt to the court but is not expected to call into question high-profile rulings on abortion, gay marriage and other issues in which the court has been divided 5-4 in recent years.
Despite Gorsuch and Hardiman emerging as the most likely picks Tuesday, Trump is well-known for changing his mind. Just hours before the president’s announcement, his final decision was being closely held — a level of secrecy out of character for Trump advisers and associates who sometimes discuss even private deliberations in the press.
Gorsuch served for two years in Bush’s Department of Justice before the president appointed him to an appeals court seat. There he has been known for clear, colloquial writing, advocacy for court review of government regulations, defense of religious freedom and skepticism toward law enforcement.
He has contended that courts give too much deference to government agencies’ interpretations of statutes, a deference that stems from a Supreme Court ruling in a 1984 case. He also sided with two groups that successfully challenged the Obama administration’s requirements that employers provide health insurance that includes contraception.
Hardiman has a reputation as a solid conservative on the bench but not an ideological activist. He has sided with jails seeking to strip-search inmates arrested for even minor offenses, but he joined more liberal-leaning colleagues in doing so. In Second Amendment cases, the active Federalist Society member has supported gun rights, dissenting in a 2013 case that upheld a New Jersey law to strengthen requirements to carry handguns in public.
The ninth seat on the Supreme Court has sat empty since Scalia died in February 2016. President Barack Obama nominated U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland for the vacancy, but Senate Republicans refused to consider the pick, saying the seat should be filled only after the November election.
That GOP effort outraged the White House and congressional Democrats, who have suggested they might seek to block any choice Trump makes. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said Democrats will oppose any nominee outside the mainstream.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that while Democrats may not like the “political or philosophical background” of the president’s pick, “the criteria in terms of academia background, time on the bench, the expertise and criteria meets the intent of both Republicans and Democrats.”
If Democrats decide to filibuster, the fate of Trump’s nominee could rest in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump has encouraged McConnell to change the rules of the Senate and make it impossible to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee — a change known in the Senate as the “nuclear option.”