A promise kept, and a worthy heir to Scalia

For many conservatives unhappy with Donald Trump as the Republican standard bearer last fall, there was one overarching reason to support him: The Supreme Court. He promised to nominate a conservative justice in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, and facing the prospect of a permanent liberal majority on the court, that one issue became paramount.

I am one of those skeptics. I make no secret about the fact that I do not fully trust Donald Trump, and never really have. I have a natural aversion to populism, and I don’t believe that he has a real ideological commitment to conservatism, which is an important thing to me.  So I watched him campaign with a fair dose of caution.

But once he won the election, I made a commitment to do the same thing I do when any new occupant enters the West Wing — praise him when he does things that will be good for the country, and oppose him when he does things that will not be good.

I sincerely hoped that many of the promises he made — the promises I was worried he wouldn’t keep — would be kept.  My enthusiasm about Trump would directly correlate with whether or not that happened.

With that perspective in mind, now happens to be an excellent time to praise President Trump. In this case, for keeping perhaps his biggest promise — the promise that drove many skeptics to otherwise support him — by nominating a worthy heir to Antonin Scalia in Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

Let me start by praising his campaign decision last year, in the middle of a campaign that he knew would in some ways be about the Supreme Court, to actually release a list of justices he felt would be appropriate choices to fill the Scalia vacancy.

That is praiseworthy because in today’s politics, most politicians are terrified of giving too much information, lest they be attacked. It is why politicians dance around without telling you what their proposals are in a variety of policy areas. They don’t do that because they lack beliefs or ideas, they do it because they’re afraid that if they are as bold and forthright as they may want to be, they will be mercilessly attacked for it.

Trump’s original list was full of excellent choices, from a conservative’s perspective. Each, to varying degrees, would have been a good choice to replace Scalia. By putting that list out, he gave Hillary Clinton a weapon to use to paint him as “right-wing nutjob” — but he didn’t care. He gave it to us anyway.

Gorsuch wasn’t on that original list of justices that Trump presented to the world. He was, however, on a revised list that was sent out shortly afterward. So he was on the radar for some time.

The reason that I love this selection so much is that, of all the people on Trump’s potential list, Gorsuch is the closest thing to the man — Antonin Scalia — he will be replacing.

Neil Gorsuch walks with former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, before a meeting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Neil Gorsuch walks with former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, before a meeting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Joshua Roberts | Reuters

I don’t mean his inherent conservative outlook on issues, though he certainly does share Scalia’s opinion on most things. Rather, I’m talking about his grounded judicial philosophy, his intelligence, and his ability to translate his views effectively into writing.

Gorsuch is an originalist and strict constructionist, and he is in ways that recent conservative nominees such as Chief Justice John Roberts never were. That is a good thing for the court.

To boil down his approach to the bench simply, look to his writings. Gorsuch said, for instance, “it is (or should be) emphatically our job to apply, not rewrite, the law enacted by the people’s representatives. Indeed, a judge who likes every result he reaches is very likely a bad judge, reaching for results he prefers rather than those the law compels.”

In other words, it is the job of a judge to read the law, and render a verdict according to that law and the intent of those who wrote the law, even if it runs counter to a judge’s own personal beliefs.

While that seems like a common-sense approach — and it is — it is also shockingly unpopular in legal circles today. The common judicial philosophy of most left-wing justices, as well as a fair share of right-wing justices, is that a judge must contort the law to fit the perceived social demands of the country and a desired end, thereby making new law by reinterpreting established statute.

This is where you get the concept of the “living, breathing document” and “evolving” law. Dangerous concepts that are far too prevalent among those who interpret the Constitution.

The brilliance of the Constitution is not only its supremacy, but its enduring application to our society. The Founders were smart enough to build a system that provided clear laws, as well as a system to change those laws if it became necessary to do so.

As Gorsuch argues, we should view those laws as what they are. If they become outdated or need changing, we should amend them, not reinterpret them.

I look forward to him explaining that to America for many years to come.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.