Neil M. Gorsuch was sworn in April 10 as the 113th justice of the U.S. Supreme Court following a move by the Senate majority leader to invoke the “nuclear option,” which enabled the Senate to change the filibuster rule with regard to Supreme Court nominees by a simple majority vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the historic “nuclear option” step after Gorsuch’s nomination failed, by a 55-45 vote, to garner the 60 votes required for cloture to end debate and proceed to a vote on the nomination. Following the failed cloture vote, a 52-48 party-line vote changed the Senate rules to require only a simple majority for cloture votes on all nominees.
Three Democrats ─ Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) ─ voted with Republicans on the initial filibuster vote and to confirm the nomination the next day. The final confirmation vote on April 7 was 54-45.
When faced with Republican opposition to President Obama’s Cabinet and lower-court nominees during the 113th Congress, the Democratic leadership invoked the nuclear option to prevent filibusters for those nominees. The filibuster was preserved, however, for Supreme Court nominations.
President Trump nominated Gorsuch on Feb. 1 to fill the seat left vacant by the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia. After Scalia’s death, the Senate leadership refused to consider the nomination of DC Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice for the vacancy, maintaining that no action should be taken a Supreme Court nominee during a presidential election year.
During debate on the Gorsuch nomination, Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) emphasized that the Democrats were opposing the Gorsuch nomination because of some of his past rulings and because they did not believe that he was forthcoming in his answers during his confirmation hearings regarding judicial precedents and his time at the Department of Justice.
Pressured to ensure Gorsuch’s confirmation, McConnell justified the Senate rule change, saying, "This will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee," he said. "This is the latest escalation in the left's never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch was a law clerk, administered the judicial oath to Gorsuch during the White House swearing-in ceremony. Gorsuch, who served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit from 2006 until his Supreme Court confirmation, holds a law degree from Harvard Law School and a Doctor of Philosophy in Law from University College at Oxford. Following 10 years in private practice from 1995 to 2005, he served as a principal deputy associate attorney general in the Department of Justice until his judicial appointment to the Tenth Circuit by President George W. Bush.
In early March, the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary submitted a unanimous rating of “Well Qualified” for Gorsuch to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The ABA committee subsequently submitted a detailed written statement to the committee and presented testimony March 23 during the nominee’s confirmation hearings.
“Based on the writings, interviews and analyses scrutinized to reach our rating, we discerned that Judge Gorsuch believes strongly in the independence of the judicial branch of government, and we predict that he will be a strong but respectful voice in protecting it.” ABA committee Chair Nancy Scott Degan told the Senate committee. She was accompanied by Shannon Edwards, the ABA committee’s Tenth Circuit representative and lead evaluator for the Gorsuch investigation.