WASHINGTON — Neil Gorsuch’s journey began with a covert mission in January.
He snuck over to his neighbor’s house to meet two White House aides in a rental car. From there, the group dodged camera crews and took country roads to a military base to board a plane headed toward Washington.
The next day, President Donald Trump greeted a crowd that was assembled in the glittering East Room to announce his pick.
“So, was that a surprise?” the president asked.
Gorsuch and his wife Louise — unaccustomed to the limelight and the red carpet and the crystal chandelier — did look surprised and slightly uncomfortable with the attention.
It was the beginning of a stealth nomination.
Many progressives criticized the pick that night and referred to the seat as being “stolen” from President Barack Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland.
But then they largely turned their attention to a series of extraordinary events unfolding from the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress.
“There has been so much else going on beyond the nomination — from the travel ban to all of the Russia allegations and the efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — that Democrats have been distracted, and the nomination has been effectively drowned out by what seems to be a never-ending series of breaking news,” said Amy Howe, a Supreme Court expert at Scotusblog.
Groups that concentrate on voting rights are focused on the fact the new Justice Department is pulling out of a fight concerning Texas’ strict voter ID requirement.
LGBT advocates were trying to salvage a case brought by a transgender teen challenging his school’s bathroom policy. Immigrant rights groups are fighting an increase in deportations.
All along, Gorsuch quietly continued his journey to the high court, meeting with more than 70 senators, boning up on constitutional issues, participating in so-called murder boards with his closest colleagues, where they ask him difficult questions to prepare him for his hearings, which begin March 20.
While numerous Democrats will vote against him, short of a bombshell from his past or at the hearing, Gorsuch is set to help cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for years to come.
In addition to being pulled in different directions, Democrats also know this likely won’t be the last Supreme Court fight with Trump.
And because Gorsuch will replace Antonin Scalia, his pick isn’t changing the ideological balance of the court from where it was before Scalia’s sudden death in February 2016.
If Anthony Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan appointee who has often struck a middle ground on key issues like abortion, or liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, were to step down, that would change the calculus for the left.
That doesn’t mean liberal groups like the pick. The Alliance for Justice issued stern news releases calling Gorsuch “a disastrous choice for the U.S. Supreme Court — especially now, given the president’s repeated demonstrations of contempt for our democratic institutions.”
People for the American Way called Gorsuch an “ideological warrior who puts his own right-wing politics above the Constitution, the law and the rights of everyday people.”
Garland isn’t coming back
Liberals are also finding it hard to stomach the fact Trump got to nominate a new justice at all, given the way Garland was treated. But that hasn’t become a unifying factor to block Gorsuch.
Writing in The New York Times, Neal Katyal, who served as an acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, admitted he was fearful for the future on issues such as environmental protection, reproductive rights, privacy and executive power.
He said he wished it were a Democrat choosing the next justice.
“But since that is not to be, one basic criterion should be paramount: Is the nominee someone who will stand up for the rule of law and say no to a president or Congress that strays beyond the Constitution and laws?”
He said he had “no doubt” that if Gorsuch were confirmed, he would help to restore confidence “in the rule of law.”
David C. Frederick, a lawyer at Kellogg, Hansen and a friend of Gorsuch, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post.
“As a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates and progressive causes, I understand the anger at the Republicans’ mistreatment of Judge Merrick Garland after he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama,” he wrote.
But he called Gorsuch “brilliant, diligent, open-minded and thoughtful.”
“He was the only Supreme Court candidate considered by this administration that I could support. The Senate should confirm him because there is no principled reason to vote no,” Frederick wrote.