Neil Gorsuch reflects on 'surreal' court tenure

Story highlights

  • Gorsuch is considering a significant docket this term
  • The speech before the group was a rite of passage of sorts for Gorsuch who has had a whirlwind year

Washington (CNN)Justice Neil Gorsuch returned to the faithful on Thursday night to address the Federalist Society, a conservative group that was instrumental to his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Greeted by a standing ovation, Gorsuch delivered a rousing tribute to the conservative jurisprudence of the man whose seat he filled: the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
    Gorsuch admitted, however, that the months since his nomination have been "surreal" at times.
    "If you caught up with me in Colorado a year ago and told me that I would be addressing you as the 101st associate justice of the Supreme Court," he said, "I would have said you had taken way too much advantage of my home state's generous drug laws."
    Gorsuch reiterated his core beliefs -- that he shared with Scalia -- that the Constitution and laws should be interpreted based on their original public meaning.
    "Tonight, I can report that a person can be both a publicly committed originalist and textualist and be confirmed to the Supreme Court," he said.
    The speech came as Gorsuch is considering a significant docket this term including cases on voting rights, religious liberty, abortion and cell phone privacy.
    Gorsuch steered clear of those issues during his 30-minute talk, however, instead speaking broadly. "The separation of powers is the cornerstone of our liberty," he said at one point.
    "In our legal system judges wear robes, not capes," he said.

    Victory for Trump and McConnell

    The speech before the group, which has also hosted Scalia as well as Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas in past years, was a rite of passage of sorts for Gorsuch who has had a whirlwind year.
    It was only last January that he appeared center stage in the glittering East Wing to accept President Donald Trump's nomination and trigger a partisan battle royal as Democrats sought to stymie the new administration's goal to reshape the judiciary.
    His nomination represents Trump's most unassailable victory during a tumultuous year -- and his name is frequently invoked by embattled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It was McConnell who blocked the confirmation hearing of President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, and the Senate is now working feverishly to populate the lower courts with Trump appointees.
    The judiciary could well be the President's most lasting legacy, enduring long after his presidency is over.
    So far, Gorsuch has delivered, not only siding with judicial conservatives on issues including the Second Amendment and the travel ban, but jumping into oral arguments and writing or joining opinions with a pace that is unusual for a new justice. He's also drawn criticism from liberals who contend that his seat was stolen from Garland, and others who question the tone and the style of some of his questions at oral arguments.
    Thursday's speech drew criticism from Nan Aron, the President of the liberal Alliance for Justice, a group opposed to his nomination.
    "Tonight's speech is just the latest stop on Neil Gorsuch's thank-you tour to honor the people who got him what should have been Merrick Garland's job," she said in a statement.

    Summer off

    Last summer -- after his controversial hearing and the end of the term -- Gorsuch did something he told one audience he hadn't done for years: he took the summer off. Returning to his home state, he hiked, biked and even grew a beard.
    Meanwhile, liberals who opposed his nomination said their fears had been realized and court watchers reflected on his judicial impact.
    "It's clear from just this month in the court that Neil Gorsuch is going to be a very conservative justice," constitutional law expert Erwin Chemerinsky said in July during an event sponsored by the University of California Irvine School of Law.

    Return to controversy

    In September, Gorsuch returned to work, shaved the beard, and once again faced controversy.
    He had agreed to speak before the Fund for American Studies, a conservative group dedicated to teaching students and sponsoring scholarships. But, unbeknownst to him, the organizers chose to hold the event at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
    Protesters gathered outside of the hotel in late September to question why Gorsuch was appearing at a hotel named for the man who put him on the bench.
    Gorsuch chose to ignore the protesters but instead devoted his talk to a celebration of civility and his respect for what he called the "din of democracy."
    He thanked his colleagues for their warm welcome on the bench, singling out his former boss, Justice Anthony Kennedy, by saying that having the chance to work with him again was an "unexpected joy."

    Fall term

    Once his first full term got underway in October, Gorsuch dove in without hesitation. Some court watchers were taken back by the tone of some of his questions and suggested he should begin his tenure more cautiously.
    "I look at the text of the Constitution, always a good place to start," he said in one case.
    "Maybe we can just for a second talk about the arcane matter, the Constitution," he said in another.
    On Thursday night, Gorsuch made clear he had heard the criticism. But he vowed to double down and to continue to bring oral arguments back to his vision of the Constitution.
    "Justice Gorsuch's manner at oral argument has rubbed some people the wrong way, but I'm not one of them," said Ian Samuel, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and host of First Mondays, a weekly podcast about the Supreme Court.
    "It is refreshing to have a justice join the court and decide they're not going to ease into it like a warm bath -- he's there to do a job and he decided to hit the ground running from day one," Samuel said. "He doesn't regard himself as on the junior-varsity squad just because he's the newest arrival, and he shouldn't," he said.
    During a rare interview on Fox News recently, host Laura Ingraham asked Thomas about reports that Gorsuch had "ruffled some feathers" on the court.
    "He is a good man," Thomas said of his new colleague. "And I have no idea what they are talking about."

    What's ahead

    So far this term, the court has only heard one of the real blockbuster cases, Gill v. Whitford. It's a case concerning partisan gerrymandering, and the court could step in, for the first time, to decide how far politicians can go when they manipulate maps for partisan purposes.
    The case is brought by Wisconsin Democrats who argue that the state's Republican-drawn maps violate the Constitution.
    During oral arguments, Gorsuch appeared to side with the conservative signaling that he thought the issue was for the political branches, not the courts.
    "Where exactly do we get authority to revise state lines," Gorsuch asked.
    Later this term, court watchers could learn a lot more about Gorsuch as the justices hear a challenge from a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple out of religious objections, a major Fourth Amendment case concerning cell phone privacy and a First Amendment challenge to a California abortion regulation.
    Kennedy might be the swing vote in some of those cases, but court watchers will be watching Gorsuch as well.
    He has, at times, a light touch from the bench.
    In the partisan gerrymander case, for example, he suggested discomfort with the lower court's standard meant to identify an extreme political gerrymander.
    The test, he said, "reminds me a little bit of my steak rub. I like some turmeric, I like a few other little ingredients, but I'm not going to tell you how much of each."
    In another case concerning a challenge to a tract of tribal land, he asked, "where is the real beef here?"