The 'Bigly,' and Necessary, Humility of Judge Neil Gorsuch

Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.  This article appeared in The Hill on April 6, 2017.

With the Senate poised to vote this week on Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to replace the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one quality of Judge Gorsuch has been widely overlooked by scribes and talking heads throughout cable news coverage.  

While Judge Gorsuch may have garnered the most press during his day two confirmation hearing exchange with Senator Ben Sasse for his humorous slip-up referring to a “bigly” signature on the Declaration of Independence, another less noticed part of their exchange reveals something more telling. Judge Gorsuch has genuine and palpable humility. In reflecting on how he’d like to be thought of after leaving the bench, Judge Gorsuch stated:

“I’d like to be remembered as a good dad, good husband. Kind and mild in private life. Dignified and firm in public life. I have no illusions that I’ll be remembered for very long. . . . I won’t last five minutes. That’s as it should be.”

What would it be like if we had more judges like Judge Gorsuch?

In our era of ever-increasing judicial activism, when ever more social issues are dragged into the courts, a novel ruling can more easily garner a judge praise in certain quarters of politics and the press (and condemned in others). This incentivizes the emergence of “rock-star” judges, known for “defying” politicians and legislative authorities in some cases, and being “groundbreaking” in others. Such a trend results in the unfortunate politicization of the judiciary. It was never meant to be (and shouldn’t be) this way in our constitutional order.

However, for the past half-century at least, the Supreme Court has aggregated social power to itself under the guise of adjudicating constitutional rights. In reality, it has become a super-legislature and thrown off the balance of power in our constitutional order, while making judicial nominations unnecessarily high-stakes.

If this were not true, why are nominations so much more controversial now than 100 years ago? Everyone knows the Court has aggregated social power to itself through activist rulings over the past decades, and this is why everyone cares so much about Supreme Court nominations. Judge Gorsuch is the type of jurist who can help reverse this unfortunate trend.

A healthy dose of humility is needed in the judiciary (and all public service) now more than ever. And Judge Gorsuch clearly exhibits this quality. In an age when judges take it upon themselves to read new “rights” into the text of statutes or the Constitution, the humility and restraint to apply the law within its limits instead of contorting it outside its boundaries is needed.

When the temptation to create a public name for oneself as an “esteemed” justice of our highest court is as powerful as ever, the restraint to limit oneself to the law as already written becomes ever more necessary.

The humility to recognize that writing our laws is left up to another branch of government, and that a judge should simply apply them, should be cherished in judicial candidates today. The healthy self-perspective that a judge should be quite invisible in his or her role, and should guard against the human urge to be recognized and praised for one’s “novel” and “groundbreaking” rulings, is needed in the judiciary now as much as ever.

Judge Gorsuch exhibits all this and more. It would be quite enough if all he showed was a strong originalist philosophy — which he does — for this alone should restrain a judge from coloring outside his or her proper lines in our constitutional order. It only adds assurance to public confidence that he will make a good Supreme Court justice when he clearly has a humble view of himself as a judge, public servant, and human being.

We have a supreme treasure in the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, and he should be confirmed as a justice on our Supreme Court.