USA Justice First Look

In first day on Supreme Court, Gorsuch is an 'energetic questioner'

Justice Neil Gorsuch's inquiries in the three cases heard by the Supreme Court on Monday often revealed a Scalia-style emphasis on the text of the statutes themselves.

US Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the third day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
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Caption
  • Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
    Reuters

President Trump's appointee Neil Gorsuch on Monday showed himself to be a frequent and energetic questioner during US Supreme Court arguments in his first day hearing cases as a justice, at one point even apologizing for talking too much.

Justice Gorsuch, whose confirmation to the lifetime job restored the court's conservative majority, exhibited composure and confidence, sitting on the far right of the bench in the ornate courtroom, alongside liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The first of the three one-hour arguments before the justices on Monday involved an employment dispute. Gorsuch grilled lawyer Christopher Landau, who represented a man claiming he was discriminated against by the US Census Bureau, over the fine points of a law governing civil service employees.

The justices, with the exception of the usually silent Clarence Thomas, are known for their aggressive questioning, and Gorsuch showed no qualms about jumping right in.

"I'm sorry for taking up so much time, I apologize," Gorsuch said after his first lengthy exchange, sitting back in his high-backed chair and smiling.

Chief Justice John Roberts welcomed Gorsuch to the court before oral arguments began. "Justice Gorsuch, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling," Justice Roberts said.

Gorsuch responded by thanking his new colleagues for their "warm welcome."

Gorsuch stepped in three times during the first one-hour argument, on each occasion asking a string of questions about the complicated federal law at issue. As he indicated during his Senate confirmation hearing last month, his line of inquiry focused on the text of the statute, an approach also embraced by the man he replaced on the court, Antonin Scalia, and other conservative jurists.

"Wouldn't it be a lot easier if we followed the plain text of the statute? What am I missing?" Gorsuch asked government lawyer Brian Fletcher at one point.

When Fletcher responded that he could give reasons for his interpretation, Gorsuch appeared unsatisfied. "Not reasons. Where in the language?" he said, referring to the statute.

A full complement 

The court had its full complement of nine justices, five conservatives and four liberals, for arguments for the first time since Justice Scalia's death in February 2016.

The second case involved whether a developer can intervene in a lawsuit brought by a property owner against the town of Chester, N.Y., over its refusal to give him permission to build on his land.

One of the lawyers in the case, Neal Katyal, was a familiar face to Gorsuch, having heartily endorsed his nomination, even testifying at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. Mr. Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general in Democratic former President Barack Obama's Justice Department, represented the town.

Gorsuch sparred with a lawyer for a developer hoping to build on the land but did not directly engage with Katyal.

The third case, to be argued later in the day, involved a dispute over whether certain securities class-action lawsuits can be barred because they were filed too late.

Gorsuch formally joined the Supreme Court on April 10 after being confirmed three days earlier by the Republican-led Senate over broad Democratic opposition.

Gorsuch, at 49 the youngest new justice in a quarter century, served for a decade on the Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals before Mr. Trump nominated him in January. Trump was able to fill Scalia's vacancy only because Senate Republicans last year refused to consider Obama's nominee Merrick Garland.