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Donald Trump

Trump’s conservative pick for top court sets up bitter political showdown in Washington

Donald Trump has seized an unusual early opportunity to put conservatives back in the majority on America’s top court

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 11:29pm

US President Donald Trump’s nomination of circuit court judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the supreme court has set up a showdown with congressional Democrats and activists over a pick that could shape the ideological bent of the court for a generation.

Gorsuch, 49, the youngest supreme court nominee in 25 years, was among a group of federal judges reported in recent weeks to be on Trump’s shortlist. A strict adherent of judicial restraint known for sharply-written opinions and bedrock conservative views, Gorsuch, a Colorado native, is popular among his peers and is seen as having strong backing among Republicans generally.

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.

The nomination landed at a moment of sharply-increasing alarm amongst progressives that the Trump administration planned to pursue extremist policies on core questions likely to come before the court, from religious equality to abortion rights, voting rights, access to healthcare, LGBT rights, anti-discrimination protections and more.

After unprecedented secrecy and then hyping of the announcement, Trump on Tuesday invited Gorsuch and his wife to emerge dramatically before an audience in the East Room of the White House.

“Here they come. Here they come. So was that a surprise? Was it?” said Trump, ever the showman.

“He could have had any job at any law firm for any amount of money, but what he wanted to do with his career was to be a judge, to write decisions, and to make an impact by upholding our laws and our Constitution.”

Some prominent Senate Democrats immediately denounced Gorsuch as “unacceptable” and “extreme”. But it was unclear if there would be sufficient support to mount a filibuster and force an historic showdown over the nomination and Senate procedure.

“Make no mistake, Senate Democrats will not simply allow but require an exhaustive, robust, and comprehensive debate on Judge Gorsuch’s fitness to be a supreme court justice,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said.

Profile: Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch is sceptical of regulation, strong on religious freedom

Republicans were effusive in their praise of Gorsuch, calling him “highly qualified”, “universally respected” and, above all, “mainstream”.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz described Gorsuch as “a home run”, and promised to thwart any move by Democrats to prevent his appointment.

Under current Senate rules, 60 Senators have to agree to proceed to an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch. Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate. But GOP leaders could employ the “nuclear option” to change the rules and allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority of 51 votes.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer downplayed the looming threat of an all-consuming political brawl over Trump’s nominee, saying that he believed the Senate would reach the 60-vote threshold required to confirm supreme court appointees.

If confirmed, Gorsuch would return the court to nine justices, filling a seat left vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.

Working for the last year with an even number of justices, the court issued split 4-4 decisions on high-stakes questions such as the protection of undocumented immigrants and the health of public unions, leaving lower court rulings in place.

The next justice to be confirmed may break such ties, giving new strength to the court’s conservative bloc, which could be further buttressed by future Trump nominations in the case of the retirement or death of a justice.

Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state was headed toward Senate confirmation after several Democrats crossed party lines to back the former Exxon Mobil CEO.

The vote on Tillerson, scheduled for Wednesday, comes as tension continues to build among congressional Republicans and Democrats over Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees.

Tillerson has also taken a hawkish approach to Beijing. He told a confirmation hearing last month thatChina should be denied access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea.

The Guardian, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters