Gorsuch, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, will fill a long-standing court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.
The nuclear option
To reach a vote, Senate Republicans used the “nuclear option” Thursday, which changed the chamber’s rules to require a simple majority — rather than the traditional 60-vote requirement.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y., told NBC News the rule change was triggered by what he deemed an unprecedented, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination.
Isaac Unah, a UNC political science professor, said using this nuclear option will damage the Supreme Court as an institution.
“When we have a situation where only one vote is required to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, that sort of heightens the ideological nature of future Supreme Court nominations that presidents are going to put forth,” he said. “And that’s what I see is the danger.”
But U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the GOP had a moral high ground in the nomination process during the confirmation hearing.
“On Kagan and on Sotomayor, the Republicans respected the president’s authority to appoint a Supreme Court justice, and Republicans did the right thing by moving forward and allowing the confirmation,” Tillis said.
“So I think that we have a moral high ground here that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle should take note of.”
An empty seat no longer
Gorsuch is not the first to be nominated to Scalia’s vacated seat, which former President Barack Obama intended to fill with the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. The nomination was met with a Republican refusal to take action.
Garland’s nomination expired Jan. 3 with the adjournment of the 114th Congress, leaving the door open for the next president to nominate a judge to the bench.
Nominating a new justice became a critical issue in the 2016 presidential elections, given the age of current justices — and the potential to fill several seats.
Of the Supreme Court justices, three are over 75, and two are over 80 years-old. And John Davis, a North Carolina political analyst, said the average retirement age for a Supreme Court justice is 79.
The Senate Judiciary Committee oversaw a four-day confirmation hearing last week, after Trump announced his nomination of Gorsuch Jan. 31.
Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday, and his nomination was confirmed by the full Senate body for a final vote on Friday.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he applauded Trump’s selection of Gorsuch.
“Gorsuch is a judge who will continue to operate in accordance with the rule of law and respect for the Constitution,” he said.
Tillis said in a statement that Gorsuch is a qualified choice.
“He has proven himself to be a judge who approaches every case before him with fairness, and bases his decisions on the rule of law,” he said.
The Supreme Court looking ahead
The implications of Gorsuch’s confirmation for public policy in America for the next 20 years cannot be overstated, Davis said.
“They are profound, they are going to be a seat change in who has the advantage in this country over the laws of the land,” he said. “It’s that big.”
Davis said he can’t think of anything that would keep the court from becoming more conservative in the next 20 years unless Democrats took over.
“If they manage to take over the majority, then they could stop the Trump nominees from that point on,” he said. “So that’s a big election year for U.S. senate races but structurally, Republicans have an advantage in 2018.”
But Unah said Gorsuch will join a Court that has been trending in a conservative direction since 1970.
“Gorsuch is essentially going to slide into (Scalia’s) spot, I think quite nicely, and his credentials are pretty conservative and a lot of people say he is very similar in terms of his philosophy with Justice Scalia based on his voting record on the court of appeals,” he said.