SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch urged his colleagues against politicizing confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard opening statements Monday.
The Utah Republican said in his experience, the process reveals the kind of judge senators want to see appointed. A senator who wants to know which side a nominee will be on in future cases or who demands that judges be advocates for certain political interests, clearly has a politicized judiciary in mind, Hatch said in his opening statement.
"Something is seriously wrong when the confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice resembles an election campaign for political office," said Hatch, who has served on the committee for 40 years and participated in 14 high court confirmation hearings.
Hatch spent the past two months making the case for Gorsuch in speeches on the Senate floor, town halls meetings, and national and local media appearances. He wrote several op-ed pieces to tout the judge's qualifications, refute criticism and encourage senators to refrain from questions that would politicize the process.
Gorsuch, 49, has served on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver since 2006. President Donald Trump nominated him last month to fill the seat left vacant after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia 11 months ago.
Committee members spent about four hours in Washington, D.C., on Monday making opening statements and hearing a speech from Gorsuch. Senators will start questioning him Friday.
Gorsuch said it's up to Congress, not judges, to make laws.
"If judges were just secret legislators, declaring not what the law is but what they would like it to be, the very idea of a government by the people and for the people would be at risk," he said. "For a judge who likes every outcome he reaches is probably a pretty bad judge, stretching for policy results he prefers rather than those the law compels."
Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., slammed Republicans in her opening remarks for their "unprecedented treatment" of former President Barack Obama's nominee Merrick Garland, who was denied a confirmation hearing.
The committee's role is to assess how Gorsuch's decisions would impact Americans, she said.
"For those of us on this side, our job is not to theoretically evaluate this or that legal doctrine or to review Judge Gorsuch's record in a vacuum. Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable mainstream conservative or is he not," Feinstein said.
Committee member Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said being nominated to the Supreme Court can appear like running for political office, noting interest groups have mounted campaigns for and against him.
"You, sir, are not a politician, which means that the acrimony, the duplicity, the ruthlessness of today’s politics are still a little foreign to you, are still quite unfamiliar to you," Lee said.
"I hope that they will remain unfamiliar to you."
Lee said he expects some of his colleagues to argue that Gorsuch is so far outside the mainstream that it's dangerous. Some will complain that Gorsuch won't reveal how he would decide certain issues, he said, adding that's an argument in favor of confirmation, not against.
Hatch said when taking his seat on the appeals court, Gorsuch swore to administer justice without respect to persons and to impartially discharge his judicial duties.
"His opponents today demand, in effect, that he violate that oath," he said.
Advocates of a politicized judiciary "seem to think that the confirmation process requires only a political agenda and a calculator," Hatch said.
"When a nominee is a sitting judge, they tally the winners and losers in his past cases and do the math," he said. "If they like the result, it’s thumbs up on confirmation. If they don’t, well, it’s thumbs down."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., criticized Trump for relying on conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society to vet and recommend his list of potential Supreme Court picks.
"Senate Republicans made a big show last year about respecting the voice of the American people in this process," he said, referring to Trump's election victory. "Now they're arguing that the Senate should rubber-stamp their nominees selected by extreme interest groups and nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes."