In what may be a first for a Supreme Court nominee, U.S. Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch lamented comments President Donald Trump has made in recent days impugning the federal judge who blocked his executive order suspending all refugee resettlement and barring travel from several predominantly Muslim countries.
Gorsuch, whom Trump last week named to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, said during a visit with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Wednesday that the president’s attacks on U.S. District Judge James Robart, who sits in Seattle, are “demoralizing” and “disheartening,” according to CNN.
The senator, who is also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will vet and hold hearings on Gorsuch, pointed out that the nominee specifically used those words in characterizing Trump’s outbursts on Twitter.
“I believe he has an obligation to make his views known more explicit and unequivocally to the American people,” Blumenthal said of Gorsuch in a call with reporters, according to The Wall Street Journal.
CNN separately confirmed that Ron Bonjean, one of the White House staffers who is ushering Gorsuch through the confirmation process in the Senate, said Gorsuch expressed his dismay over a tweet Trump sent out over the weekend calling Robart a “so-called judge.”
Trump’s criticism of Robart and his veiled swipes early Wednesday at the appellate judges weighing the legality of his travel ban have drawn the ire of Democrats and court watchers who are closely following the legal showdown over the president’s executive order.
During remarks at a police chiefs’ conference Wednesday, Trump touted his nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but suggested that he’d be watching closely how those he appoints rule on issues relating to public safety.
“The first step in restoring public safety is affirming our confidence in the men and women charged with upholding our laws,” Trump said. “And I’m going to add justices, judges in that category.”
Trump also seemed to cast doubt on how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which on Tuesday considered his travel ban order, would rule in the high-stakes legal controversy over his most controversial executive order to date.
“And I don’t ever want to call a court biased, so I won’t call it biased,” he said. “And we haven’t had a decision yet. But courts seem to be so political, and it would be so great for our justice system if they would be able to ... do what’s right. And that has to do with the security of our country, which is so important.”
In response to this and other statements Trump has made on social media about the judiciary, a group of 50 members of Congress introduced a resolution Wednesday condemning his attacks.
Independent of how a court rules, the resolution read, “it is inappropriate for sitting presidents, or other government officials, to engage in ad hominem attacks against a judge, or otherwise place political pressure designed to undermine the independence of that judge, or to erode trust in the entire court system.”
It is unclear how Trump will respond to Gorsuch’s dismay over his judicial tantrums, or whether the White House coordinated this response by the highly respected judge.
But it is possible those who are walking the Supreme Court nominee through the process may be looking for ways to build comity with Democratic senators, like New York’s Chuck Schumer, who still harbor doubts about whether they’ll agree to hold an up-or-down vote for his confirmation.
“He is clearly a smart and capable man who loves being a judge,” Schumer, the Senate minority leader, told reporters after meeting with Gorsuch on Tuesday. “But his nomination comes at a perilous time in the relationship between the executive and the judicial branches.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) said he didn’t think Gorsuch’s consternation about Trump’s comments was pre-mediated. “It does show his independence. I don’t think it was calculated on his part,” Flake said.
Many Democrats still haven’t forgotten how Senate Republicans mistreated Merrick Garland, the appeals judge President Barack Obama nominated for the Scalia seat. His nomination died last month without any action in Congress.
Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the sole Democrat to vote for the confirmation of his colleague Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be attorney general, was asked if the “disheartening” comment helped him as he considered whether Gosuch would be independent.
“That basically gives people comfort that maybe didn’t have comfort. We’re just putting everything together now, but that sure has helped him,” he said.
“I think a lot is going to be on his hearing ― how he does in hearing is where an awful lot of the weight is going to rest on him, how he does there and how well he answers it. That was definitely a proper response.”
Michael McAuliffe contributed to this report. This story has been updated to include Flake and Manchin’s reactions and more background on the tension between Trump’s comments and Gorsuch’s impending confirmation hearing.