Neil Gorsuch (1967–) is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Born in Denver to a prominent legal and political family, he moved as a teenager to Washington, DC, where his mother, Anne Gorsuch, served in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. His education and early legal career kept him largely on the East Coast until 2006, when President George W. Bush named him to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which sits in Denver.
In 2017 he became Colorado’s second-ever Supreme Court justice (after Byron White) when he was nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate. The most significant opinion of his career so far has come in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), which held that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status in the workplace.
Neil McGill Gorsuch was born in Denver on August 29, 1967, to Anne and David Gorsuch. His parents had both graduated from the University of Colorado Law School in 1964. His paternal grandfather, John Gorsuch, was a prominent Denver lawyer, and his father joined the family firm and became president of the Denver Kiwanis Club. His mother was elected to the Colorado General Assembly in the 1970s, where she was a populist firebrand and member of the “House Crazies” who worked for tax cuts and states’ rights and against federal environmental policies.
The Gorsuch family moved to Washington, DC, in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan named Anne Gorsuch the first female head of the Environmental Protection Agency. After slashing the agency’s budget and staff, she resigned two years later owing to a scandal (“Sewergate”) involving mismanagement of the Superfund environmental clean-up program. Neil finished out high school at Georgetown Preparatory School in nearby North Bethesda, Maryland. He then attended Columbia University, where he had a column in the Columbia Daily Spectator and founded the conservative Federalist Paper. After graduating in 1988 with a degree in political science, he went on to Harvard Law School, where he was in the class of 1991 with Barack Obama.
Gorsuch’s abilities and ambitions showed clearly in his string of postgraduate activities. In 1991–92 he clerked for conservative Judge David B. Sentelle on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. After winning a prestigious Marshall Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, he spent the next academic year at Oxford University, where he was advised by the natural law scholar John Finnis. Returning to the United States in 1993, he clerked for a year at the Supreme Court for fellow Coloradan Byron White, who had recently retired, and for Anthony Kennedy.
In 1995 Gorsuch went into private practice at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Fiegel in Washington, DC. During his time at the firm, he regularly represented Philip Anschutz, whose sprawling business empire made him the richest man in Colorado.
In the early 2000s, Gorsuch took a detour from his lucrative partnership to complete his doctorate at Oxford, finishing in 2004. His dissertation became the basis for his first book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (2006). Gorsuch argued “for retaining existing law [banning the practices] on the basis that human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable, and that the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
After completing his doctorate, in 2005 Gorsuch joined the Department of Justice as principal deputy to the associate attorney general and then acting associate attorney general. In May 2006, President George W. Bush nominated him to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. He was confirmed in July and returned to the Denver area, where he served for about a decade as a circuit-court judge. Starting in 2008, he also taught classes in ethics and antitrust law at the University of Colorado Law School, where he was a visiting professor.
Gorsuch and his wife, Louise, whom he met at Oxford, have two daughters, Emma and Belinda. During his time on the Tenth Circuit, his family lived on a horse property in Boulder County, where they also raised chickens and goats. Gorsuch enjoys hunting, fishing, and skiing; he was on the slopes in early February 2016 when he learned of Supreme Court associate justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to replace Scalia. Although Gorsuch himself was not an especially contentious nominee, the circumstances surrounding his nomination made it politically polarizing. At the time of Scalia’s death, President Barack Obama, then in his last year in office, had attempted to name Merrick Garland, a well-regarded moderate judge, to the seat. In an unprecedented move, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader in charge of confirmations, refused to give Garland a hearing, preferring to wait and hope for a Republican victory in the presidential election that fall. Democrats were incensed about the maneuver, which left the Court shorthanded and injected a bitter dose of partisanship into a theoretically nonpartisan institution, and as a result, many opposed Gorsuch’s nomination on those grounds alone.
Gorsuch appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2017 and followed the recent standard practice whereby nominees provide only vague assertions about their neutral legal principles instead of specific answers on issues. After his hearing, Democrats filibustered his confirmation, blocking it from proceeding unless sixty senators agreed to cut off debate. In response, Republicans deployed the so-called nuclear option of doing away with the traditional sixty-vote threshold to end debate. That done, Gorsuch was confirmed on April 7 by a 54–45 vote (only three Democrats voting in favor) and was sworn in three days later.
At age forty-nine, Gorsuch became the 113th justice in the history of the Supreme Court. On a Court packed with Easterners who attended Ivy League schools, his western heritage added a new perspective and a first-person knowledge of distinctive western issues, which was expected to come into play in cases involving public lands and American Indians. Long a member of a liberal Episcopalian church in Boulder, Gorsuch also added a bit of religious diversity by becoming the current Court’s only Protestant member.
Despite his prior reputation for mild-mannered, even courteous, dissents, Gorsuch quickly made a name for himself on the Court thanks to the civics lessons he routinely delivered to his fellow justices during oral arguments and in written opinions. “If a statute needs repair, there is a constitutionally prescribed way to do it,” he lectured in an early dissent. “It’s called legislation.” During his first year on the Court, he developed an antagonistic relationship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was reportedly engaged in feuds with Chief Justice John Roberts and Elena Kagan, who saw Gorsuch’s flashy, contentious style as a threat to institutional stability and consensus. Some commentators thought Gorsuch was positioning himself as the new leader of the Court’s conservative wing.
Legal Views and Notable Opinions
Like many conservative judges since the 1980s, Gorsuch believes in originalism, a doctrine of Constitutional interpretation that attempts to apply the original intentions of the framers. He has been sharply critical of what he sees as liberal attempts to use litigation to stretch laws to their liking. “American liberals have become addicted to the courtroom,” he wrote in National Review in 2005, “relying on judges and lawyers rather than elected leaders and the ballot box, as the primary means of effecting their social agenda.”
Gorsuch adheres to a broad construction of religious liberty under the First Amendment, usually taking the side of employers and other organizations that have religious objections to providing contraception coverage. Despite the common assumption that conservatives generally favor law and order, he has staked out strong positions in favor of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, going so far as to defend child pornographers twice in such cases. As Gorsuch noted at his Supreme Court nomination, “a judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge.”
One distinctive feature of Gorsuch’s jurisprudence is his desire to see greater accountability for the practices and policy decisions of federal administrative agencies. This desire is most evident in his opposition to the principle known as Chevron deference, from the 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. The decision states that courts should defer to federal agency interpretations of ambiguous laws within their realm of regulation. Gorsuch believes that principle cedes power to executive agencies that should more properly belong to the legislative and judicial branches.
Another notable feature of Gorsuch’s jurisprudence is his textualism, or emphasis on the plain meaning of the language used in laws. This emphasis played a prominent role in his majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020). In that opinion, Gorsuch argued that workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status fell under the category of “sex” covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” he acknowledged. “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. . . . Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.” The unexpected ruling was immediately seen as a landmark in civil rights law.