WASHINGTON — Justice Neil Gorsuch took his place in history Monday as the newest addition on the bench of the Supreme Court, restoring a narrow conservative majority and marking a much-needed political victory for President Donald Trump.
Gorsuch was sworn in during a sun-soaked ceremony in the Rose Garden, nearly 14 months after the seat was left vacant with the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The oath was administered during the White House ceremony by Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom Gorsuch once served as a law clerk. A smiling President Trump stood behind his nominee.
It was the second of two oaths — the first was conducted privately in the Justices’ Conference Room by Chief Justice John Roberts.
“To the Scalia family, I won’t ever forget that the seat I inherit today is that of a very, very great man,” Gorsuch said to the audience of family and administration staffers, as well as all the sitting Supreme Court justices.
“I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great nation,” he said.
Gorsuch joins the court that is often the final arbiter for presidential policy.
Speaking ahead of Gorsuch at the ceremony, President Trump said that “our country is counting on you to be wise, impartial and fair, to serve under our laws, not over them, and to safeguard the right of the people to govern their own affairs,” hinting at his own friction with the judiciary.
Gorsuch’s confirmation was a badly needed boost for an administration riddled with controversy and misstep. President Trump failed to get enough Republicans on board to support his plan to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature health care bill. His efforts to build a physical border wall with Mexico remain uncertain and his attempts to ban certain travelers from entering the U.S. because they pose a security threat have been blocked by the courts.
President Trump was lighthearted about his latest win, saying that Gorsuch’s successful nomination came during his first 100 days in office and added: “You think that’s easy?”
President Trump said Americans would see in Gorsuch “a man who is deeply faithful to the Constitution of the United States” and predicted greatness for the 49-year-old former appeals court judge from Colorado.
Gorsuch said he was humbled by his ascendance to the nation’s high court and thanked his former law clerks, saying of his former law clerks, “your names are etched in my heart forever.”
Scalia had anchored the court’s conservative wing for nearly three decades before he died unexpectedly in February 2016. In nominating Gorsuch, President Trump said he fulfilled a campaign pledge to pick someone in the mold of Scalia.
Gorsuch is the youngest nominee since Clarence Thomas, who was 43 when confirmed in 1991.
His 66-day confirmation process was swift, but bitterly divisive. It saw Senate Republicans trigger the “nuclear option” to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold for Gorsuch and all future high court nominees. The change allowed the Senate to hold a final vote to approve Gorsuch with a simple majority.
Most Democrats refused to support Gorsuch because they were still seething over the Republican blockade last year of President Barack Obama’s pick for the same seat, Merrick Garland. Senate Republicans refused to even hold a hearing for Garland, saying a high court replacement should be up to the next president.
For now, Gorsuch restores the court’s conservative tilt. But the new Senate rules allowing for confirmation of a justice by a simple majority will be crucial if President Trump gets to fill another opening and replace either Kennedy — often a swing vote — or one of the court’s liberal justices.
Kennedy and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg are both in their 80s and Justice Stephen Breyer is 78, raising concern among Democrats that President Trump may have another opportunity to move the court in a more definitive conservative direction.
Gorsuch mirrored Scalia’s originalist approach to the law during his 11 years on the federal appeals court in Denver, interpreting the Constitution according to the meaning understood by those who drafted it. Like Scalia, Gorsuch is a gifted writer with a flair for turning legal jargon into plain language people can understand.
Gorsuch will be seated just in time to hear one of the biggest cases of the term: a religious rights dispute over a Missouri law that bars churches from receiving public funds for general aid programs.
The White House swearing-in ceremony was a departure from recent history. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were both sworn in publicly at the Supreme Court. Former Justice John Paul Stevens has argued that holding the public ceremony at the court helps drive home the justice’s independence from the White House.
A few hours after the swearing-in ceremony, a Pennsylvania college honored Scalia and Ginsburg with its annual award for civility in public life. The prize from Allegheny College noted the enduring friendship between the justices despite their ideological differences.
In her remarks accepting the award, Ginsburg said collegiality “really matters” at the court and urged members of Congress to “lead in restoring harmonious work ways.”