LOUISVILLE, Ky. — New Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch espoused a limited role for the judiciary in a speech Thursday in the hometown of the powerful Kentucky lawmaker who championed his confirmation.
A limited judicial role sometimes means that a “real-life ‘good guy’” loses a case because a judge’s ruling conforms to “exactly what the law demands,” Gorsuch told an audience at the University of Louisville that included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“It is the job of the judge to apply it, not amend the law ... even when he might well prefer a very different outcome,” Gorsuch said. “That last part’s pretty tough.”
With McConnell seated just feet away, Gorsuch drew laughter when he noted: “Sometimes, too, the real-life ‘good guy’ loses because of a law enacted by Congress.”
During his confirmation hearings this year, Gorsuch was asked about the case of a truck driver who was fired for leaving his trailer of meat beside an Illinois road after breaking down on a frigid night in 2009, fearing he’d freeze to death.
In that 2016 case, Gorsuch dissented from a ruling ordering a trucking company to rehire Alphonse Maddin. Gorsuch argued he had to determine whether the trucking company’s decision to fire Maddin was legal, not “wise or kind.”
Earlier this year, Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill a vacancy on the high court after the death of Antonin G. Scalia.
Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation was seen as restoring a rightward tilt to the nation’s high court that could last for years. In his speech Thursday, Gorsuch repeatedly praised Scalia.
The court’s newest justice said judges should “pick up the baton” from the nation’s founding fathers and respect the separation of powers among government’s three branches.
Such dispersal of power is “the genius” of the U.S. Constitution, and a centralization of power would reduce the Bill of Rights to “just words on paper,” he said.
Gorsuch said judges should stick to interpreting laws, not rewriting them.
Winning elections and getting bills passed by Congress and signed by the president wouldn’t matter if “all you need to do is convince a judge,” he said.
He also dismissed the notion of entrusting “a handful of unelected, life-tenured” judges to setting policy through their decisions.
“Wouldn’t that be sort of like asking Lamar Jackson to do the kicking?” he asked, referring to Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
Gorsuch also took a swipe at how judicial rulings are labeled.
He bemoaned that judges sometimes are branded as “soft on crime” for ruling in favor of criminal defendants, or as pro-business for ruling in favor of companies in disputes.
“Perhaps talking or writing about cases in that headline-grabbing sort of way is easier than trying to communicate about the often-technical and, yes, often very boring details of a case,” he said.
Thursday’s appearance amounted to a home turf victory lap for McConnell, who helped prevent Democratic President Barack Obama from filling the seat last year with Judge Merrick B. Garland.
The Kentucky senator blocked Garland’s nomination for nearly a year, refusing to even allow a confirmation hearing, so the next president could make the nomination after the election.
When Senate Democrats tried to block Gorsuch’s confirmation, McConnell led his Republicans in a unilateral rules change to lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 to a simple majority in the 100-member chamber. That paved the way for the confirmation of Gorsuch, a veteran of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
When introducing Gorsuch at his alma mater Thursday, McConnell called the judge a “thoughtful public servant” and said, “I could not have been happier” when his nomination was sent to the Senate.
“I knew he’d be great for our country,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Gorsuch’s tour of the Bluegrass State with McConnell continued with a scheduled appearance Thursday evening at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.