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Utah senators praise Supreme Court nominee

By Ben Lockhart | Posted - Jan. 31, 2017 at 10:48 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — New U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has had a hand in several notable Utah cases, including the Planned Parenthood lawsuit filed against Gov. Gary Herbert and a separation of church and state issue regarding Pleasant Grove that the high court ruled on in 2009.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch was quick to praise the nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court Tuesday evening.

“With Neil Gorsuch, the president has made a standout choice," Hatch said in a news release. "Throughout his career, he has consistently demonstrated an abiding understanding of a judge’s proper role: to ‘say what the law is,’ not what he might wish the law to be."

Hatch sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold hearings on the nomination.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also issued a statement of praise immediately after President Donald Trump's announcement.

“I’ve had the privilege of arguing before Judge Gorsuch, and he is extremely impressive. He is a prepared, thoughtful, and careful jurist who has demonstrated a strong commitment to textualism and originalism," Lee said. "He has enriched the 10th Circuit’s jurisprudence in a number of areas during his 10 years on the court."

Both Hatch and Lee committed to doing all they can to ensure Gorsuch is confirmed quickly by the Senate.

"If there is one man capable of filling the big shoes left by the late Justice Scalia, it is Neil Gorsuch," Hatch said. "I applaud the president’s inspired choice and will do everything in my power to ensure his confirmation. As the longest-serving current member of the Judiciary Committee, I look forward to helping lead a vigorous debate about the kind of justice that America needs.”

Gorsuch has played a role in multiple major Utah cases. In 2007, he joined a dissenting opinion in a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling concerning Pleasant Grove v. Summum, in which the city had been sued for allowing a Ten Commandments marker in a public park while later rejecting another religious group's proposed monument.

"By tradition and precedent, city parks ... must be open to speeches, demonstrations, and other forms of ... expression," the dissenting opinion stated. "But neither the logic nor the language of (relevant) Supreme Court decisions suggests that city parks must be open to the erection of fixed and permanent monuments expressing the sentiments of private parties."

That dissenting opinion was later echoed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Pleasant Grove.

Gorsuch also issued a dissenting opinion in October 2016 in a Planned Parenthood case against Utah's governor. In those proceedings, Gorsuch argued a re-hearing at the appeals court level was needful. He said the appeals court had initially erred by going beyond the appropriate bounds of appellate review when it disagreed with a District Court finding that Herbert intended to defund Planned Parenthood out of the belief that they were engaged in illegal conduct.

The question of Herbert's intention was considered by both sides to be a major component of the case's merits.

Another Utah case involving Gorsuch was his 2014 ruling upholding the lawsuit of former Salt Lake County employee Michael Barrett, who said government officials demoted him after he helped a co-worker file a sexual harassment claim.

Gorsuch also issued a ruling in 2015 that was highly critical of Duchesne and Uintah counties, as well as the state of Utah, for re-litigating issues related to the proper criminal jurisdiction of the Ute Indian Tribe in what had been a decades-old case that was initially dismissed in 2000.

Gorsuch also dissented when his appeals court colleagues ruled in 2010 that some crosses on Utah highways represented an endorsement of Christianity.

Paul Cassell, law professor at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, told the Deseret News that Gorsuch should be considered "an outstanding pick" for the justice seat.

"If there's any box that hasn't been checked on his resume, I'm not really sure what it is," Cassell said.

With the Supreme Court made up primarily of justices from the East and West coasts, Gorsuch's proximity in Colorado makes him an "exciting pick for Utahns," according to Cassell.

"I think geographical diversity will be a good thing that he brings to the court," he said.

Gorsuch served for two years in President George W. Bush's Department of Justice before the president nominated him to the appeals court. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him to that post.

Cassell said he is confident Gorsuch will be confirmed by the Senate swiftly to the Supreme Court as well, though he added that tough questions, "fussing and fighting" from Democrats are inevitable.

Cassell said depictions of Gorsuch as a far-right nominee, if they are to surface, would be unfair.

"He follows the law carefully regardless of whether it produces results that might be considered conservative or liberal," Cassell said.

Gorsuch has contended that courts give too much deference to government agencies' interpretations of statutes, a deference that stems from a Supreme Court ruling in a 1984 case. Email: Twitter: benlockhartnews

Ben Lockhart


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