Trump picks conservative Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court nominee

U.S. President Donald Trump has announced 49-year-old appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch as his selection to fill a Supreme Court seat that has been vacant for almost a year — a move that would reinstate the court's conservative majority.

If approved, the 49-year-old appeals court judge will reinstate a conservative tilt to the country's top court

Trump's appointment of Gorsuch, seen standing with his wife, Louise, is expected to re-establish a conservative majority on the country's top bench. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch, a fast-rising conservative judge with a writer's flair, to the Supreme Court — a selection expected to spark a fierce fight with Democrats over a jurist who could shape the country's legal landscape for decades to come.

At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest Supreme Court nominee in a quarter-century. He's distinguished himself on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals with his clear, colloquial writing, advocacy for court review of government regulations, defence of religious freedom and skepticism toward law enforcement.

"Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous discipline and has earned bipartisan support," Trump said, announcing the nomination Tuesday in his first televised address from the White House.

Gorsuch's nomination was cheered by conservatives wary of Trump's own fluid ideology. If confirmed by the Senate, he will fill the seat left vacant by the death last year of Antonin Scalia, long the right's most powerful voice on the high court.

With Scalia's wife, Maureen, sitting in the audience, Trump took care to praise the late justice. Gorsuch followed, calling Scalia a "lion of the law."

Gorsuch thanked Trump for entrusting him with "a most solemn assignment." And he said, "Standing here in a house of history, I'm acutely aware of my own imperfections and pledge that if I am confirmed, I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution of laws of this great country."

Some Democrats, still smarting over Trump's unexpected victory in the presidential election, have vowed to mount a vigorous challenge to nearly any nominee to what they view as the court's "stolen seat."

Former president Barack Obama nominated U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland for the vacancy after Scalia's death, but Senate Republicans refused to consider the pick, saying the seat should be filled only after the November election.

Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer said he has "serious doubts" that Gorsuch is within what Democrats consider the legal mainstream, saying he "hewed to an ideological approach to jurisprudence that makes me skeptical that he can be a strong, independent justice on the court."

Cementing conservative dominance

Trump's choice of Gorsuch marks perhaps the most significant decision of his young presidency, one with ramifications that could last long after he leaves office. After an uneven start to his presidency, including the chaotic rollout of a controversial refugee ban, Trump's selection of Gorsuch appeared to proceed with little drama.

For some Republicans, the prospect of filling one or more Supreme Court seats over the next four years has helped ease their concerns about Trump's experience and temperament. Three justices are in their late 70s and early 80s, and a retirement would offer Trump the opportunity to cement conservative dominance of the court for many years.

Gorsuch would restore the court to the conservative tilt it held with Scalia on the bench. But he 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.

If confirmed, Gorsuch would join the court that is often the final arbiter for presidential policy. Justices upheld Obama's signature health-care law in 2012 and could eventually hear arguments over Trump's controversial refugee and immigration executive order. 

Judge Neil Gorsuch speaks in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Gorsuch was among the 21 possible choices for the court Trump released during the campaign. Other finalists also came from that list, including Thomas Hardiman, who serves alongside Trump's sister on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and William Pryor, a federal appeals court judge and Alabama's attorney general from 1997 to 2004.

Pryor's standing slipped in the lead-up to the announcement, in part because his reputation as a staunch conservative seemed likely to make him a rich target for Democratic senators in a confirmation hearing.

Yet Gorsuch, too, is expected to face intense scrutiny from Democrats. Some liberals have demanded that Democrats block any Trump choice, underscoring the deep partisan discord surging through Washington.

"Now is not the time for business as usual," advocacy group's Ilya Sheyman said in a statement.

Nominee's resume

Gorsuch is a Colorado native who earned his bachelor's degree from Columbia University, then a law degree from Harvard. He clerked for Supreme Court justices Byron White, a fellow Coloradan, and Anthony Kennedy, before earning a philosophy degree at Oxford University and working for a prominent D.C. law firm.

He served for two years in former president George W. Bush's Department of Justice before Bush nominated him to the appeals court.

Gorsuch 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 sided with two groups that successfully challenged the Obama administration's requirements that employers provide health insurance that includes contraception.

If Democrats decide to filibuster Gorsuch's nomination, his fate 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."

A conservative group already has announced plans to begin airing $2 million US worth of ads in support of the nominee in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota, four states that Trump won and in which Democrats will be defending their Senate seats in 2018.

'Wall Street's best friend'

Dan Goldberg, legal director of the progressive advocacy group Alliance for Justice, says he worries Gorsuch's record has shown too much support for corporations ahead of women's and workers' rights.

"His record demonstrates that he would be Wall Street's best friend," he says. "He would put the agenda of huge corporate interests and special interests ahead of the American people."

With files from Matt Kwong