Trump chooses Neil Gorsuch, a conservative seen as likely to be confirmed, for Supreme Court

President Trump nominated federal Judge Neil M. Gorsuch on Tuesday to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Antonin Scalia, choosing a Western appeals court judge seen as the most likely choice from Trump’s shortlist to win Senate confirmation.

Announcing his selection in a prime-time, televised White House ceremony, the new president cast his decision as another campaign promise kept — and perhaps the one with the most far-reaching impact.

Trump praised Gorsuch’s experience on the bench, academic credentials and his track record in securing bipartisan Senate confirmation for lower-court slots.

“The qualifications of Judge Gorsuch are beyond dispute,” Trump said. “I only hope that both Democrats and Republicans can come together for once for the good of the country.”

Because Scalia was a stalwart conservative, Gorsuch is not likely to change the previous balance of the court. But his nomination does set the stage for a bruising partisan fight over a man who could help determine U.S. law on gun rights, immigration, police use of force and transgender rights.

In brief remarks, Gorsuch praised Scalia as a “lion of the law,” and affirmed his commitment to what conservatives consider a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

“It is for Congress, and not the courts, to write new laws,” he said.

Gorsuch, a 49-year-old graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School who serves on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, also honored former Justice Byron White. Gorsuch once clerked for White, a fellow Coloradan, and called him “one of the smartest and most courageous men” he’d ever known.

Trump made his announcement with trademark showmanship, on the grand stage of the White House’s East Room before a national audience, creating an aura of mystery — or in the more critical view of some, a reality-show atmosphere — around what is traditionally a staid, sober process. In addition to key Republican lawmakers, the audience included Scalia’s widow, whom Trump acknowledged.

The president called his selection process, which began with a list of 21 candidates released during the campaign, the “most transparent” in history, then trumpeted its dramatic conclusion.

“So was that a surprise? Was it?” he asked the audience after inviting Gorsuch and his wife on stage. 

A president making such a consequential nomination after only days in office is highly unusual, and the nomination was in part a product of the partisanship that has come to define Washington in recent years. Democrats remain outraged at the GOP’s refusal to grant a vote or even a hearing to President Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy, appeals court Judge Merrick Garland.

Coming after more than a week of rapid-fire executive actions, the choice offered a measure of reassurance to Republican leaders growing wary of the vocal opposition to Trump. He took office as the least popular newcomer to the Oval Office in modern history, and already a majority of voters in a Gallup tracking poll  say they disapprove of his job performance.

GOP lawmakers, in particular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have increasingly advised the president to avoid a move that could provoke Democrats to obstruct a nomination. The minority party is already using delaying tactics to weaken some of Trump’s Cabinet choices.

Barring further changes to Senate filibuster rules — which GOP leaders for now seem reluctant to make — Trump needs to sway at least eight Democrats to ensure his nominee is confirmed.

Liberal activists have already begun to take aim at Democrats who voted to advance some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, and are likely to press further to try to block Gorsuch, given the consequential nature of Supreme Court decisions — such as, in recent years, in preserving abortion rights, extending marriage rights to same-sex couples and twice upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Democratic lawmakers immediately criticized Trump’s choice.

“As a judge, he has twisted himself into a pretzel to make sure the rules favor giant companies over workers and individual Americans,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leader in the party’s increasingly powerful progressive wing.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pointed not to Gorsuch's record but to Trump's, particularly his temporary ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries — an order that sowed chaos at U.S. entry points over the weekend and that was blocked in narrow instances by a handful of federal judges. Trump fired acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates after she directed federal prosecutors not to defend the order.

"In light of the unconstitutional actions of our new president in just his first week, the Senate owes the American people a thorough and unsparing examination of this nomination," Leahy said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which will oversee Gorsuch’s confirmation process, expressed concern over two cases in which he voted to deny contraceptive coverage to women. She noted Trump promised in the campaign to appoint antiabortion judges.

"Tonight, President Trump declared, ‘I am a man of my word.’ That’s exactly what I’m afraid of," Feinstein said.

Still, Gorsuch was unlikely to spur the sort of fight that could have been prompted by some of the other judges Trump eyed.

“I consider the United States Senate the greatest deliberative body in the world, and I respect the important role the Constitution affords it in the confirmation of our judges,” Gorsuch said at the White House.

GOP leaders were particularly concerned that choosing William H. Pryor Jr., a judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals who once called the decision legalizing abortion the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law,” could prompt centrist Republican women in the Senate to withhold support.

The White House pointed to the testimony of Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, in a New York Times op-ed.

"More than ever, public confidence in our system of government depends on the impartiality and independence of the courts," Katyal wrote. "I have no doubt that if confirmed, Judge Gorsuch would help to restore confidence in the rule of law."

Leading conservatives, including Christian evangelicals who provided a key bloc of support for Trump in the campaign, praised the choice. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Trump won evangelical support “in no small measure” because of his “ironclad pledge” about the Supreme Court. 

“We never doubted then-candidate Trump's sincerity or commitment, and by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch, he has now kept that promise,” he said.

As the White House and senators now engage in the confirmation process, both sides are mindful that it could be the first of several to come  soon over the balance of the high court. 

Four sitting justices have served for longer than two decades — Anthony M. Kennedy the longest at nearly 29 years, followed by Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Both Kennedy and Ginsburg are in their 80s.

If Kennedy, the court's swing vote, or Ginsburg, its liberal anchor, were to retire soon, Trump would have a clearer opportunity to significantly shift the court’s ideological balance. 

Even as McConnell and key GOP aides advised the administration privately, the Senate leader also publicly defended the controversial position he took last year to refuse to act on Garland’s nomination. McConnell’s stance paid off, giving Trump this early opportunity to shape the high court.

It had been more than a century since a Supreme Court vacancy was filled in a presidential election year, McConnell reminded reporters Tuesday.

“This is a beginning of a four-year term. This is not in the middle of a presidential election,” he said. “There have been Supreme Court appointments in the middle of the first term for Bill Clinton, for Barack Obama. None of those four nominees was denied an up-or-down vote.”

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli 

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UPDATES:

7:20 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Senate Democrats.

5:30 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Trump and Gorsuch.

5 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump’s announcement.

This story was originally published at 4:50 a.m.

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