WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — It’s official.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch to become the newest associate justice on the Supreme Court Friday, elevating President Donald Trump’s nominee following a corrosive partisan confrontation that could have lasting impacts for the Senate and the court.
As CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported, Gorsuch will be sworn in Monday – just in time to hear the last case of the current Supreme Court session.
Vice President Mike Pence was presiding as the Senate voted 54-45 in favor of Gorsuch, who will fill the seat has been vacant for a record 419 days since Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in February 2016.
Gorsuch won support from 51 of the chambers’ Republicans as well as three moderate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won last fall: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who has been recovering from back surgery, did not vote.
Republicans exulted in the victory.
“This is a person of extraordinary credentials who will bring honor to the Supreme Court for many, many years to come. So it is indeed a proud day,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He told reporters that he views his refusal to fill Scalia’s seat, which was initially questioned by some fellow Republicans, as “the most consequential decision I’ve ever been involved in.”
“In those 800 opinions Judge Gorsuch has written, he’s been overturned by the court he will now sit on, the Supreme Court, exactly one time,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R Mo.
The vote came Friday over furious Democratic objections after Senate Republicans deployed the so-called “nuclear option,” changing longstanding rules to break a Democratic filibuster.
The move paved the way for Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority vote instead of a 60-vote minimum.
Then-Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had already used the tactic for lower court nominations in 2013 when he barred filibusters,
At the time, then-Minority Leader McConnell made a fateful statement.
“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think,” McConnell said on Nov. 21, 2013.
This time, Democrats denounced the GOP’s use of the “nuclear option” to put Gorsuch on the court, calling it an epic power grab that would further corrode politics in Congress, the courts and the United States.
“We will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court,” Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York declared on the Senate floor Thursday.
“This is going to be a chapter, a monumental event in the history of the Senate, not for the better but for the worse,” warned Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior Republican.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a senior Republican, warned of the implications of lowering the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees, thereby eliminating any role for the minority party in ratifying the selection.
“I am very concerned about the future, which will then, with only a 51-vote majority required, lead to polarization of the nominees as far as their philosophies are concerned, when the majority does not have to consider the concerns and the votes of the minority,” McCain said, though he himself voted with McConnell and the rest of the Republicans to lower the vote threshold.
McCain said the Senate will never be the same.
“We have now destroyed 200 years of tradition requiring 60 votes, meaning that you have to have bipartisan support for these votes and these appointments,” McCain said.
Democrats had earlier been furious that President Obama’s choice for the seat, Merrick Garland, was never even considered. They also insisted that Gorsuch would not uphold the rights of Americans.
“In many cases, the Supreme Court is the last resort for every day Americans seeking fairness and justice against forces much larger than themselves,” Schumer said.
With Gorsuch’s confirmation as the 113th Supreme Court justice Friday, it won’t be long before he starts revealing what he really thinks about a range of hot topics he repeatedly sidestepped during his confirmation hearing.
After he is sworn in, Gorsuch will restore the court’s 5-4 conservative voting majority that existed before Scalia’s death, and which could persist for years or even grow over the course of Trump’s administration.
In less than two weeks, the justices will take up a Missouri church’s claim that the state is stepping on its religious freedom. It’s a case about Missouri’s ban on public money going to religious institutions and it carries with it potential implications for vouchers to attend private, religious schools.
Other cases the court could soon decide to hear involve gun rights, voting rights and a Colorado baker’s refusal to design a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. Some of those cases may come up April 13, which could be Gorsuch’s first private conference — where justices decide whether to hear a case. It takes four votes to do so, though the court does not generally announce each justice’s decision.
Arkansas’ intention to execute up to eight men over 10 days beginning April 17 also could land at the court in the form of last-minute pleas for a reprieve. By late spring or early summer, the court might be asked to consider President Donald Trump’s proposed ban on visitors from six majority Muslim countries.
Also potentially awaiting Gorsuch’s decisive vote are six cases that were argued before the end of 2016 and remain unresolved. If the justices are divided 4 to 4 in any of them, the most likely route to breaking a ties would be to schedule a new round of arguments, with Gorsuch participating.
Included in that batch are lawsuits involving racial discrimination in housing and political redistricting, and the rights of detained immigrants.
Both sides in the bruising battle over Gorsuch’s nomination think they have a good sense of how he will come down on the big issues of the day, from his record as an appellate judge in Denver since 2006 and his recommendation by conservative groups. They expect Gorsuch to, in effect, restore the working conservative majority that was in place when Justice Antonin Scalia was alive. Gorsuch will take the seat of the conservative icon who died in February 2016.
While that remains uncertain, it’s safer to say Gorsuch should know his way around the venerable building.
Like Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Gorsuch once served as a law clerk at the court, so the building’s layout and its idiosyncratic ways will be somewhat familiar to him. Samuel Alito reported he sometimes had trouble finding his way around as a new justice, and the challenge was all the greater because the court was going through a major renovation at the time.
Alito had argued cases in front of the justices, but he said it didn’t prepare him for the building’s confusing layout or the view from the bench.
“It was unreal. It was sort of surreal. I’ve had many times during those periods where I’ve had to pinch myself to say, ‘Yeah, you’re really here. You’re on the Supreme Court. This is really happening,'” Alito told the Newark Star-Ledger in an interview in July 2006, a half of a year after joining the court.
Further easing Gorsuch’s transition is that his former boss, Justice Anthony Kennedy, remains on the court. It’s the first time a justice will serve alongside his former clerk.
The 49-year-old Coloradan also will be the first member of Generation X, the cohort of Americans following the post-World War II baby boom, to reach the court. He’ll be the youngest justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 84, is the oldest.
As the newest justice, Gorsuch will also take over two duties performed by Kagan since 2010. When the justices are alone in their conference room and someone knocks on the door, it is the junior justice who answers. He also will become the newest member of the court’s cafeteria committee, where replacing Kagan will be no mean feat. Her tenure brought with it a frozen yogurt machine.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)