The most powerful court in America has a new member. On Monday, Judge Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The ceremony marked the end of a yearlong political battle over filling the opening on the nation’s highest court that was created when Justice Antonin Scalia (skah-LEE-uh) died last February.
The Supreme Court’s nine judges, called justices, are some of our most powerful leaders. They decide whether laws and actions are constitutional—that is, whether they are allowed by the U.S. Constitution. The justices can stay in their positions for life, so their influence can last for decades.
“Justice Gorsuch, you are now entrusted with the sacred duty of defending our Constitution,” President Donald Trump said at the ceremony. “Our country is counting on you to be wise, impartial and fair, to serve under our laws not over them, and to safeguard the right of the people to govern their own affairs.”
A LONG BATTLE
The president is responsible for nominating justices to the Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate then must approve or reject the nominee. Last spring, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, nominated Judge Merrick Garland to take Scalia’s place. However, Republican senators wanted to leave that choice to whoever won the presidential election in November. They refused to allow Garland to even be considered for the position. They hoped their party’s candidate would win the election and choose someone else to replace Scalia. They got their wish when Trump was elected and nominated Gorsuch on January 31.
Senate Republicans and many law experts consider him well qualified for the Court. Gorsuch earned his law degrees from top universities in the U.S. and England. He also served as a law clerk, or assistant, to two Supreme Court justices, including current Justice Anthony Kennedy. Most recently, Gorsuch was a judge in a high-ranking federal court in Denver, Colorado.
But Democrats attempted to block his nomination. Many are concerned that his views about the Constitution mean he will not protect certain rights and will favor big businesses over everyday people and the environment. Moreover, Democrats say that the spot on the court was “stolen” from them when Republican senators refused to even hold a vote on Garland.
CHANGING THE RULES
Ordinarily, Democrats would have had a chance at blocking Gorsuch’s nomination. But Republicans changed the rules for confirming, or approving, Supreme Court nominees to clear a path for Gorsuch’s confirmation.
Republicans currently hold 52 of the 100 seats in the Senate. It takes a majority, or 51 votes, to confirm a Supreme Court Justice. But Democrats tried to block Gorsuch from being confirmed by using a tactic called a filibuster. During a filibuster, lawmakers stop a vote from taking place by debating the issue for as long as possible.
In the past, 60 senators would have had to vote in favor of ending a filibuster. Only then would the vote on a Supreme Court nominee take place.
On April 6, Republican senators changed the number of votes needed to end a filibuster from 60 to a simple majority: 51 votes. All 52 Republicans then voted to end the filibuster. A day later, Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Some political experts worry that the new rule sets a bad precedent (an event or action that sets a future guideline or example). Requiring 60 votes in the Senate had been a way to force the two parties to compromise when they disagreed. Now the party that controls the Senate can confirm a nominee to the Court without any support from the other party.
Jeffrey Rosen is the president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He explained to The New York Times how this change in Senate rules may affect future nominees to the Supreme Court. He said that it may be impossible now for presidents to see their nominees confirmed unless their party controls the Senate.