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Neil Gorsuch and whether the personal is jurisprudential

Have LGBT advocacy groups such as Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Commission been jumping the gun in their opposition to Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, because Gorsuch has acted in ways that suggest he does not share Justice Antonin Scalia’s hostility to the LGBT community. Consider the evidence:

  1. Having hired two openly gay clerks during his tenure on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  2. Being supportive of one of those clerks when he revealed his sexual orientation to the judge.
  3. Living in a liberal Colorado community and attending a gay-friendly Episcopal church.
  4. Displaying no indication, in his record on the Tenth Circuit, of overt hostility to LGBT rights.

There is much to be said for a nominee who is not prone to ranting about the “homosexual agenda,” and who has numerous clerks willing to speak to his independence and open-mindedness. Those prone to optimism might look to these data points as support for hope that on LGBT issues, Gorsuch will bear greater resemblance to Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch clerked, than Justice Scalia, whose brand of originalism Gorsuch subscribes to. (Judicial politics scholars offer contrasting predictions of where a Justice Gorsuch would fall on the ideological spectrum.) But even if we accept these supportive characterizations of Judge Gorsuch, there are still compelling reasons for LGBT advocacy groups to be concerned.

  • The test of one’s commitment to rights is not whether you’d recognize those rights when claimed by people close to you. It’s whether you’d extend those rights to people you’ve never met and will never meet. It speaks well of Gorsuch that he has been supportive of gay work associates, and that he and his family did not treat a church’s LGBT-friendliness as a deal-breaker. But if his jurisprudence devalues marriages and enables states to treat LGBT individuals as second-class citizens, these examples of personal goodwill will offer little consolation to disfavored people who lack any personal tie to Gorsuch. (Remember, too, that Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation had no apparent impact on the gay-friendliness of George W. Bush’s policy agenda.)
  • It would be trivially easy for a Justice Gorsuch to say that while he personally favors LGBT rights, and would support them were he a legislator, his role on the bench is to interpret the law to the best of his ability, and not to enact his personal policy preferences. It’s a claim that plays well both in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room and the court of public opinion. Even legal realists who claim that this formalism is impossible to achieve in practice do not oppose it from a normative perspective. So even if the claims presented in the Times article reflect a lack of hostility to LGBT rights, the only inference one can clearly draw is that Gorsuch’s opinions will probably be devoid of Scalia-esque rhetorical salvos against gay rights and their advocates.
  • Gorsuch was part of the Tenth Circuit panel that held, in Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius, that closely held for-profit corporations could legally claim, under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an exception from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that their health insurance plans include contraception coverage. It hardly requires a great leap of logic to think that the vision of religious liberty espoused in Hobby Lobby would extend to cover legislation allowing for a religion-based exception to laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In short, those concerned about LGBT rights should look not to Gorsuch’s heart, but to his jurisprudential approach. That approach should give advocates cause for concern, even as they consider the poor odds that the current president and Senate majority propose a nominee whom LGBT advocates would prefer.

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