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Profs discuss implications of Supreme Court nominee

By Samantha Lauring

Section: News

March 17, 2017

Four Brandeis professors discussed the significance and implications of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, at a panel on Thursday, March 9. The panel, moderated by Prof. Jill Greenlee (POL/WMGS), was composed of professors Michael Willrich (HIST), Jeffrey Lenowitz (POL), Anita Hill (HS/WMGS) and Eileen McNamara (AMST).

“The court is an institution that appears to act independently of the executive and legislative branches, yet in reality, it relies heavily on those two branches in both its proceedings and to honor and to implement its decisions,” Greenlee said. Despite the Court’s responsibility to maintain an apolitical stance, it has been prone to political disputes throughout history, which is demonstrated in our current political climate, Greenlee continued.

Willrich, who teaches and researches American social, political and legal history, discussed the problematic nature of the Republican Congress’ decision not to go forward with the confirmation hearings of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. The decision not to go forward with Garland’s nomination with 10 months left of Obama’s second term was a “striking break with an institutional tradition,” Willrich said. Gorsuch fulfills Trump’s promise to nominate a judge similar to Antonin Scalia.

Willrich went on to discuss originalism, the belief that the original intent of the authors of the Constitution should be adhered to, and the 1987 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, who is known for his controversial, individualistic views. Also, in 1987, Americans were celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution, while Thurgood Marshall criticized the Constitution. Willrich read excerpts of Marshall’s speech, which said that the Constitution was defective from the start and needed several amendments and momentous social transformation to obtain the system of constitutional government of fundamental rights we value today.

Lenowitz questioned whether Gorsuch is a nominee any Republican administration would pick or a nominee only Trump would pick, joking that the former would make him personally disturbed, but the latter would make him stop sleeping at night. Gorsuch’s nomination was predictable coming from any Republican administration, and Gorsuch is a proud originalist. Lenowitz told the room of about 40 people that the role of the Constitution is to provide stability, yet originalism cannot provide this.

Hill focused on the relationship between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Neil Gorsuch and how they can change the direction of the courts “in ways that one or the other alone could not do—especially when it comes to human rights issues.” Sessions and Gorsuch have the power to change the trajectory of the rights of individuals. Hill stated four areas that she is “gravely concerned” about in terms of the application of originalism that Gorsuch practices, which include disability rights, voting rights, immigration protection and the Department of Justice’s inquiries in police abuse. She also discussed how Title IX protections and the attitude toward sexual harassment could be changed by the Trump administration.

“One of the things I want to talk about in this moment is that we are talking about real people and real lives,” Hill said. “It is important for us to think about that as we hear the testimony on Neil Gorsuch and as we listen to the questions that are being asked to him during his confirmation hearing.”

“I am not going to talk about originalism!” quipped McNamara. She discussed the obligation of news organizations to the public during the Trump administration and the lack of normalcy for journalists in Washington. “What we need the press to be doing is going over Gorsuch’s records … they need to read everything he has written,” she said. She examined the drama and political theater of politics and the tension between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, while also questioning if the hearings should go forward due to a potential investigation about whether Trump was elevated to the presidency by foreign interference in the election.

A potential story could be that “if it was legitimate not to seat a nominee, not even to give a nominee the courtesy of a hearing for a year—Merrick Garland, then let’s postpone until we have clarified what is happening with the investigation into the collusion that may or may not have happened between the current campaign and Russia,” suggested McNamara. “The Supreme Court is supposed to be about justice and the law.”

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