A confident Justice Gorsuch plunges into the debate on his first day at the Supreme Court

Neil M. Gorsuch showed no nerves as he took his seat on the Supreme Court. (April 18, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here


A confident Justice Neil M. Gorsuch took his seat on the Supreme Court for the first time Monday and quickly joined colleagues in firing questions at lawyers in three highly procedural disputes.

He was enthusiastic and well-prepared, despite having only a few days to get ready for the arguments. And the new justice showed he had clear views on how the cases should be resolved.

“Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if we just followed the plain text of the statute?” Gorsuch asked a government lawyer. “What am I missing?” He repeated the reference to the “plain words” or “plain text” of the law during all three arguments.


He cut short a lawyer who cited earlier rulings in favor of employees who had sued for discrimination and added, “We’re not asking this court to break new ground.”

Gorsuch interjected: “No, just to continue to make it up.”

He also chided a lawyer who failed to give a clear answer in response to his queries.

“That’s not a trick question,” he said during a complicated property rights dispute.

And he sounded unswayed by a lawyer for the California public employees retirement fund who defended its decision to file a separate suit in 2011 against Lehman Bros. and one of its insurers on the grounds the rules governing class-action claims were ambiguous.

Gorsuch pointed to the “plain text” of the 1934 securities law. It says, “in no event” may new claims be filed more than three years after the sale of an allegedly fraudulent stock.

“Where’s the ambiguity in ‘in no event’?” Gorsuch asked.

His opening day performance matched that of other new justices who were veterans of a federal appeals court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked more than three dozen questions during her first full day in October 2009. But many other newcomers have sat silently and listened to the fast-moving arguments during their first weeks on the high court.

Gorsuch, 49, succeeds one his heroes, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who famously insisted the court should decide cases based on the literal words of the law, not its purpose or how it has been interpreted by lower courts. Gorsuch made clear from the start he will try to follow Scalia’s approach.

But frequently the high court takes up cases because of a conflict between two laws, or because the text of the law is confusing.


The first case heard Monday was one such dispute. At issue was whether a federal employee who says he was a victim of discrimination should appeal his claims through the system for civil service appeals or before a federal district judge.

And as Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. noted, the law was anything but clear.

“This is unbelievably complicated.… Nobody who is not a lawyer and no ordinary lawyer could read these statutes and figure out what they are supposed to do,” he told the government’s lawyer. “Who wrote this statute? Somebody who takes pleasure out of pulling the wings off flies?”

When the gavel sounded at 10 a.m, the nine justices appeared from behind the red curtain, and Gorsuch took his place at the right end seated next to Sotomayor.

“Before we commence the business of the court this morning,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, “it gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and my colleagues to welcome Justice Gorsuch as the 101st associate justice of this court. Justice Gorsuch, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling.”

Gorsuch turned and said he wanted to thank “each of my new colleagues for the very warm welcome I received last week. I appreciate it very much.”

Earlier on Monday, the justices issued an orders list which showed they had taken no action in a series of closely watched appeals. They include appeals from a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and from California gun owners who sued when they were denied a permit to carry a concealed weapon.


Court officials said Gorsuch had decided not to participate in Thursday’s closed-door conference because he wanted to prepare for the three days of oral arguments this week. The appeals will be considered again at a conference Friday.

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