The Supreme Court is finally at capacity again. In what seemed like a miracle of miracles, the Senate voted last Friday to confirm Neil Gorsuch as the court’s ninth member. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led the charge to end the Democrats’ stonewalling of the nomination by changing a long-standing Senate rule. Like many Senate Republicans, he believed Gorsuch had faced immense, unfair opposition from Democrats across the country who wished to see a progressive appointed.
On the morning of April 10 – more than a year after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia – Gorsuch was sworn in. The ceremony had a nostalgic undertone. With his wife beside him – and the late Antonin Scalia’s widow, Maureen, looking on – the new member took the oath from his former mentor, Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the White House Rose Garden. Gorsuch began his law career as a clerk for Kennedy, who also swore him in as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge eleven years ago.
In a brief speech, Justice Gorsuch thanked President Trump for his appointment, Vice President Pence for his friendship, and White House attorneys, among many others, for their support. “I will never forget that to whom much is given, much will be expected,” he said, “and I promise you that I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great nation.”
Justice Gorsuch’s successful placement on the Supreme Court is a relief for conservatives who, after Justice Scalia died with President Obama still in office, feared that it would take a clearly progressive tilt. It restores a balance. The court now consists of four Democrats and five Republicans, as it did at the start of 2016. Justice Kennedy acts as a swing vote, however, and often does not side with his Republican colleagues. Gorsuch’s court appointment therefore ensures a continued balance between liberal and conservative interpretations of the constitution.
Gorsuch’s impact upon the court will likely be seen immediately. On Thursday, the justices will convene to begin deciding which cases to consider in the next term. Gorsuch will also have the opportunity to help decide his first case, on April 17. In recent months, the Supreme Court has occasionally split 4-4 on party lines. Justice Gorsuch’s vote will probably be necessary in order to issue rulings on a number of cases in the near future. Tie votes leave the lower court’s ruling in place, but without an endorsement of that decision by the Supreme Court. Because they lack the authority of a majority decision by the Supreme Court, they are not considered rulings.
As the newest member of the court, Gorsuch will also take over certain traditional duties – designed to humble new members and ensure that they keep their humility in one of the nation’s most powerful offices – from Justice Elena Kagan, who President Obama appointed in 2010. These responsibilities include answering the door during the justices’ private conferences and attending meetings of the Supreme Court’s cafeteria committee.
As Gorsuch assumes his position, the world watches to see how he will affect decisions. He developed a reputation for being a sound judge with a high regard for the constitution, and there is no doubt he will continue to act as such. He has large shoes to fill, but undoubtedly will leave behind his own legacy for Supreme Court justices in the future.