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neil gorsuch
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Look at the whole man, not just at his politics.
THE HIGH COURT

I’m a Democrat who worked with Neil Gorsuch—and I think his morals matter more than his politics

Dayna Bowen Matthew
By Dayna Bowen Matthew

Professor of Law, University of Colorado

For three years, I had the pleasure of working with Neil Gorsuch at the University of Colorado Law School. This week, I will be watching eagerly as the US Congress prepares to vote on his confirmation as Supreme Court justice.

As a Democrat, I have tremendous respect for the political reasons that members of my own party will refuse to cast a vote to confirm Judge Gorsuch. And Republicans’ refusal to grant a confirmation hearing to Judge Merrick Garland was indefensible, in my view. Yet I will celebrate when the political debate is over, and Judge Gorsuch is confirmed.

My reasons for supporting Judge Gorsuch, despite differences between his political beliefs and my own, boil down to this: My personal and professional experiences with him have shown him to be a moral and ethical man. And when it comes to evaluating a nominee for the Supreme Court, I believe that the nominee’s moral approach to decision-making can matter more than the expected content of the decisions they will make.

History has shown us that it can be hard to predict how justices will vote; remember that Anthony Kennedy, now a key swing vote on the Supreme Court, was nominated by Ronald Reagan as a conservative pick. And so, at a time when my party controls neither the White House nor the Senate, I choose to focus on the nominee as a whole person, rather than exclusively on his politics. This, I believe, is the surest way to pick justices who will strive to give meaning to the words inscribed on the Supreme Court Building: “Equal justice under law.”

I first worked with Judge Gorsuch in my capacity as associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Colorado, and later as vice dean. I guess, in the most technical sense, I was his “boss.” Here is what I learned about him through that experience.

First, he is a humble man and colleague. It was my job to hire, schedule, and (oh my) mentor him as an adjunct professor. (“Mentoring” was the term we gave to the partnership between an experienced, resident member of the law faculty and a new adjunct faculty member.) Judge Gorsuch was new to teaching in the health law curriculum, which had been my area of expertise for decades. So I served as a resource to Judge Gorsuch as he developed his Bioethics course. I visited and observed his class, talked with his students, and reviewed feedback with him.

It took no time at all for professor Gorsuch get his pedagogical feet beneath him. In truth, he needed no mentoring whatsoever. But he submitted easily to the role of being my mentee. I remember him sincerely asking for my advice about syllabi, readings, and students. He was receptive to my advice and even to critiques of his work. This suggests that Judge Gorsuch is someone who is well-equipped to listen carefully to others and set his own ego aside—a profoundly important quality in a Supreme Court justice.

Second, he is unfailingly generous with his time and energy. I remember receiving emails from the law school registrar, asking me what to do about the fact that Judge Gorsuch’s classes were over-subscribed. So I went to Judge Gorsuch and asked for permission to enroll above the cap of 45 students. His answer? “No problem!” A vice dean’s dream come true.

Judge Gorsuch attended the orientation and “training” meetings I annually hosted for adjunct faculty, notwithstanding the fact that the agenda was largely predictable. He energetically engaged in email exchanges about pedagogy and changes in legal education. And he was devoted to his students. In an effort to create a lively but civil environment in his bioethics course, he devised an “on call” system that required students to take turns leading classroom discussion, based on papers they had written about the readings. In this way, he made students the center of the classroom–and got them to care about lofty topics like categorical imperatives, fairness, autonomy, and consequentialism. I was envious. When I had taught bioethics myself, students slept whenever my lectures turned to these topics. His students came alive. In this way, he helped to strengthen the next generation of lawyers.

Third, while Judge Gorsuch holds conservative political views on many topics, he is able to remain open-minded. Judge Gorsuch is the author of The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, which I regard as the most disciplined and comprehensive treatment of the legal and ethical arguments for and against assisted suicide that I have read. A central purpose of his book was to identify and explore the strengths and weaknesses of arguments used by proponents of assisted suicide.

At the end of the book, Judge Gorsuch makes an argument against legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. He favors prohibitions against assisted suicide and euthanasia, 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.”

I respect this book for two reasons. First, it makes an important contribution to the literature on assisted suicide, as Judge Gorsuch makes this argument on secular, not religious, grounds. But also because he shows himself to be a scholar who aims to thoroughly understand the views and arguments of others before reaching judgment on those views. The book offers evidence that Judge Gorsuch is an intellectual, not an ideologue.

The last observation that I have about Judge Gorsuch is the most personal. Back in 2012, I confided in him that I hoped to one day work in the federal government. At the time, this seemed like a major long shot. Another colleague to whom I had confessed this aspiration had told me to forget about it: I was not politically or socially well-connected, and my scholarship focused largely on private law topics. Indeed, that other colleague went on at length to remind me of how unlikely a candidate for federal service I was at the time.

Judge Gorsuch had an entirely different response. He said—and this is in quotes because I remember his exact words—“Let’s talk about that.” We spoke at length about who I might contact and how I might time my search for the chance to serve in federal government. Long story short, precisely because I followed his advice, I just completed a remarkable two years of public service in Washington, D.C., first at the Environmental Protection Agency and then on Capitol Hill.

I credit not only Judge Gorsuch’s advice, but also—and much more importantly to me—the confidence I gained when he respectfully greeted my aspirations. I needed no pedigree, political connections, or power to earn the privilege of receiving Judge Gorsuch’s encouragement and rich insights. I know few men or women of his stature for whom this is true. Based on this experience, I expect that Judge Gorsuch will endeavor to judge fairly among people, without reference to their station or status. I do not believe it is a stretch to hope that he will take seriously the court’s role of protecting minority rights against majoritarian excesses.

For all of these reasons, and more, Judge Gorsuch has earned my respect. I can say with certainty that I have, and will, vehemently disagree with some of his legal conclusions on topics that matter deeply to me. Indeed, as an African-American woman, I am not ashamed of having been “addicted to the courtroom”; my equal access to health care, education, employment, and even life itself has, at times, depended wholly upon finding justice in courtrooms when justice could be found in no other American institution. And so while I am assured that I will not always agree with Judge Gorsuch when he does reach the High Court, he has earned my support because I perceive that he is driven not by ideology, but by intellectual and moral integrity. I can ask no more.