February 3, 2017

Neil Gorsuch: A Supreme Successor to Justice Scalia


Ed Whelan

The following by Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former law clerk to the late Justice Scalia, discusses Judge Neil Gorsuch's recent nomination to the Supreme Court. It originally appeared in the January 31, 2017 edition of National Review Online under the subheading "Rocky Mountain native Neil Gorsuch has an impressive judicial record as an originalist."
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On the Saturday afternoon last February when he received word of Justice Scalia’s death, Neil M. Gorsuch “immediately lost [his] breath” and “couldn’t see... for the tears.”

In his grief over the death of a justice he deeply admired and emulated, Judge Gorsuch could hardly have imagined the series of events that would lead to his being selected today to fill the Scalia vacancy. And while he has rightly recognized that no one could ever replace Justice Scalia, there are strong reasons to expect Justice Gorsuch to be an eminently worthy successor to the great justice.

Gorsuch is a brilliant jurist and dedicated originalist and textualist. He thinks through issues deeply. He writes with clarity, force, and verve. And his many talents promise to give him an outsized influence on future generations of lawyers.

Gorsuch’s judicial outlook is reflected in his beautiful speech (text and video) celebrating — and embracing — Justice Scalia’s traditional understanding of the judicial role and his originalist methodology:

Perhaps the great project of Justice Scalia’s career was to remind us of the differences between judges and legislators. To remind us that legislators may appeal to their own moral convictions and to claims about social utility to reshape the law as they think it should be in the future. But that judges should do none of these things in a democratic society. That judges should instead strive (if humanly and so imperfectly) to apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be—not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best.

In that speech, Gorsuch acknowledges that Justice Scalia’s project had its critics, from the secular moralist Ronald Dworkin to the pragmatist Richard Posner. He explains why he rejects those critics and instead sides with Justice Scalia in believing that “an assiduous focus on text, structure, and history is essential to the proper exercise of the judicial function.” The Constitution itself carefully separates the legislative and judicial powers. Whereas the legislative power is the “power to prescribe new rules of general applicability for the future,” the judicial power is a “means for resolving disputes about what existing law is and how it applies to discrete cases and controversies.” This separation of powers is “among the most important liberty-protecting devices of the constitutional design.” Among other things, if judges were to act as legislators by imposing their preferences as constitutional dictates, “how hard it would be to revise this so-easily-made judicial legislation to account for changes in the world or to fix mistakes.” Indeed, the “very idea of self-government would seem to wither to the point of pointlessness.” Go to National Review Online to read the article in full.

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