Highlights of Day 1 of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Gorsuch

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 4:03 PM
Updated: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 4:03 PM

As the central figure in one of the most contentious confirmation hearings in years, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch said Monday judges should not be “secret legislators” and vowed to apply the law in an impartial fashion while seeking consensus whenever possible.

Appearing before enthusiastic Republicans and skeptical Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gorsuch portrayed himself as an independent voice modeled after former Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Robert Jackson, declaring Jackson “reminded us that when you become a judge, you fiercely defend only one client – the law.”

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“These days we sometimes hear judges cynically described as politicians in robes, seeking to enforce their own politics rather than striving to apply the law impartially,” Gorsuch said in his opening statement. “If I thought that were true, I’d hang up the robe.”

“If judges were just secret legislators -- declaring not what the law is, but what they would like it to be -- the very idea of a government by the people and for the people would be at risk,” Gorsuch said. “And those who came before the court would live in fear, never sure exactly what the law requires of them it except for the judge’s will.”

Gorsuch, who faces two days of questioning Tuesday and Wednesday by committee members, clearly used his opening statement to assuage Democratic fears that he is an implacable conservative while simultaneously trying to establish his independence, a way to distance himself from President Donald Trump, who nominated him last month to fill the seat left vacant by the death last year of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon for the past three decades.

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Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado, delivered his 15-minute statement after sitting through more than three hours of deeply partisan opening statements from committee members.

Senate Democrats, backed by progressive legal organizations, have sharply complained that Republicans unfairly kept the seat open when they refused last year to hold a hearing for federal appeals Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by former President Barack Obama.

But they also made clear their anger is directed against Trump, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., saying the “independence of those judges has never been more threatened and never more important, and a large part of the threat comes from the man who nominated you who has launched a campaign of vicious and relentless attacks" on the judiciary.

“Just hours ago, not far from here, the director of the FBI revealed that his agency is investigating potential ties between President Trump’s associates and Russian meddling in our election," Blumenthal said.

He warned of “the possibility" that he Supreme Court might need "to enforce a subpoena against the president is no longer idle speculation,” pointing to the court’s 1974 case directing President Richard M. Nixon to yield White House taped recordings demanded by special prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal.

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Gorsuch listened attentively through opening statements by committee members, often jotting down notes on a yellow legal pad. When it came time for him to speak, he did so in a clear, but soothing voice.

Rather than accepting the challenge from Senate Democrats, he steered clear of ideological labels and said “putting on” a judge’s black robe “reminds us judges that it’s time to lose our egos and open our minds."

“It’s for this body -- the people’s representatives -- to make new laws, for the executive to make sure those laws are faithfully executed, and for neutral and independent judges to apply the law in the people’s disputes,” Gorsuch said.

He suggested his judicial style was closer to White and Justice Anthony Kennedy, both of whom he clerked for when they were on the high court in the 1980s, pointedly saying Kennedy “showed me that judges can disagree without being disagreeable.”

By doing so, Gorsuch was doing his best to describe his role as limited to interpreting the law, much like Chief Justice John Roberts did during his confirmation hearings in 2005 when he told the same committee that “judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them.”

Reminding lawmakers that he grew up in Colorado, he said “in the West, we listen to one another respectfully. We tolerate. We cherish different points of view. And we seek consensus whenever we can.”

Because five current members of the court support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, Gorsuch will not change the balance of power on those key questions. But on a host of other issues, such as whether judges should grant broad authority to federal agencies to interpret laws approved by Congress, Gorsuch could emerge as a key vote.

Few public answers to puzzle in Congressional IT investigation

Published: Saturday, May 27, 2017 @ 8:00 AM
Updated: Saturday, May 27, 2017 @ 8:00 AM

An inquiry into possible wrongdoing by IT staffers employed by a number of Democrats in Congress has garnered more attention in recent days, after a prominent lawmaker gave a public tongue lashing to the Capitol Hill police chief, vowing “consequences” over his refusal to return computer equipment that is evidently part of the ongoing investigation.

At issue is a probe into a possible security breach involving Imran Awan, who has worked for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and other Democratic lawmakers, as a shared information technology worker.

Little has been made public by Capitol Police on what exactly is being investigated; news reports in recent months have linked Awan, several of his relatives, and his wife to some type of Capitol Hill investigation that could involve stolen property and more.

The new scrutiny came after a budget hearing on May 18 with U.S. Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa; the hearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee had escaped notice, until reports earlier this week by the Daily Caller, noting the sharp words that Wasserman Schultz had for Verderosa.

At the end of her Q&A with the police chief, Wasserman Schultz asks what happens when police find lost items.

“I’d like to know how Capitol Police handle equipment that belongs to a member, or a staffer, that’s been lost within the Capitol complex, and found or recovered by one of your officers,” Wasserman Schultz begins.

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The bottom line from the chief was simple – until an investigation is completed, “I can’t return the equipment,” which is reportedly a laptop from Wasserman Schultz’s office.

That answer did not satisfy the Florida Democrat.

“I think you’re violating the rules when you conduct your business that way,” Wasserman Schultz said bluntly, as she told the chief that he should “expect that there will be consequences.”

In the wake of that somewhat jarring verbal exchange, a reporter on Thursday asked House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi about the Awan investigation.

“I’m really not familiar with what you’re talking about,” Pelosi said.

“We’ve been busy with a lot of other things,” Pelosi added.

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U.S. Capitol Police have released little information about what this probe involves, and who exactly is being investigated.

According to U.S. House spending records, Imran Awan was a shared employee for thirteen different House members in 2016, earning in the third quarter anywhere from as little as $300 from a pair of Democrats to $6,624.99 from another.

Wasserman Schultz paid Awan $5,000.01 for work between July 1 and September 30, 2016.

Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi, worked for seven Democrats, plus the House Democratic Caucus, earning close to $44,000 in the third quarter of 2016.

Records also show two relatives of Awan’s on the Congressional payroll: Abid Awan worked for eight different House Democrats, while Jamal Awan worked for eight others – all as ‘shared’ employees.

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Kasich touts book, weighs in on Trump, Nixon, faith, media

Published: Friday, May 26, 2017 @ 4:02 PM
Updated: Friday, May 26, 2017 @ 4:03 PM

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at Forum Club of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida on Friday, May 26, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich weighed in on his former Republican presidential nomination rival Donald Trump at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch on Friday — but he spent more time talking about a pair of encounters he had with former President Richard Nixon.

Kasich spoke to a sellout crowd of about 700 at the Kravis Center to promote his new book Two Paths: America Divided or United. He said America is divided because conservatives and liberals tend to read, watch and listen only to media sources that confirm their points of view.

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“Turn off the cable television and go back to bowling,” advised Kasich, who used to host a show on Fox News Network.

He also said people can “live life bigger than themselves” by reconnecting to their faith.

“The beautiful thing about faith (is)…in the next hour we have a chance to do better. And I think we need to come together as a nation again and love our neighbor and spend 10 minutes out of every day reading something that we don’t agree with. It begins to open our minds to other people.”

Kasich told the story, included in his book, of how his persistence as an Ohio State University freshman in 1970 led to him getting a meeting with Nixon in the Oval Office.

Promised five minutes with the president, Kasich said the meeting ended up lasting longer.

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“The good news is as an 18-year-old I spent 20 minutes in the Oval Office with the president of the United States,” Kasich said. “The bad news is I spent 18 years in Congress and if you add up all the time I spent in the Oval Office, I peaked out at 18.”

Kasich called the Nixon anecdote “a good story for young people because it means dream big. For all of us, dream big, keep asking, just keep doing what you want to do until somebody tells you it’s impossible and then don’t believe that.”

Kasich was asked about Trump during a question-and-answer session. He noted that he didn’t endorse Trump in 2016 or attend the Republican National Convention, even though it was in Kasich’s home state.

“I didn’t do that because I was mad about something,” Kasich said of his refusal to back his party’s nominee.

“It’s just that I’m not going to support people who are putting people down or being negative or not bringing us together. Now that he’s president, of course I root for him as much as I can, just like I rooted for the pilot on the airplane that brought me to Florida. I want them to be successful.”

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As the question segment was winding down, Forum Club President Michelle McGovern told Kasich, “We have at least five people who want to know about your conversation with Nixon.”

So Kasich told the audience about a second conversation he had with Nixon in 1987. Kasich was a House member then and both his parents had just been killed by a drunk driver.

When he told Nixon about losing his parents, Kasich said, “His reaction was amazing. It was like he had been shot. It hit him like a ton of bricks.

“I said, ‘My sister is really struggling. Could you send her a note?’ And he wrote her a handwritten two-page letter that will be put in the Nixon Library at some point. It was just so amazing. And that’s a side of him that we don’t hear about.”

Kasich wasn’t asked about whether he’ll run for president again in 2020 — a possibility he hasn’t definitively ruled out. He said he’s relieved sometimes that he didn’t win in 2016.

“I’m a happy guy,” Kasich said. “I wake up in the mornings sometimes and say ‘Lord, thank you for never letting me have that job.’”

Senate Republicans head home still searching for health care deal

Published: Friday, May 26, 2017 @ 12:29 AM
Updated: Friday, May 26, 2017 @ 12:30 AM

As lawmakers trooped out of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday and headed home until early June, Senate Republicans told reporters they were making progress, but were still nowhere near finalizing a deal on a major overhaul of the Obama health law.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), as top Republicans tried to project a feeling that the GOP is making some headway in making changes to a bill approved in the House earlier this month.

“I believe Senators across the ideological spectrum are proceeding in good faith,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

“Leader McConnell is doing a great job right now, focusing on the priorities that we’ve all agreed to, that are broken under Obamacare,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), who said he thought there would be legislative language put together in the near future by GOP Senators.

But one thing no one was talking about on the GOP side, was when a health care bill might get to the Senate floor for an actual debate, and vote.

“We’re a long ways from that,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-ND), “but you’ve got to start with something to begin with. And that’s what this is all about.”

But the schedule is already squeezing Republicans, as there are four work weeks in June, plus three in July – then Congress is scheduled to leave for a five week summer break that lasts until Labor Day.

Not only are there few work days, but Republicans still have to get the House bill past the scrutiny of the Senate Parliamentarian, and then make sure any changes also pass muster with strict Senate rules governing budget reconciliation, which prevents a bill from being subject to a 60 vote filibuster.

One item from the House bill that could be in trouble in the Senate, is the idea of allowing states to opt out of certain requirements from the Obama health law, like the list of “Essential Health Benefits” that must be covered by insurance.

How Republicans might broker some of the differences wasn’t clear as members headed for the airport, though individual Senators are clearly looking for a breakthrough.

“Can you talk to me in two weeks? We’re working on something,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) told reporters, refusing to give any hints of what he is trying to cobble together on coverage.

“No, cause I don’t know if it works. I’m running it by actuaries, I’m running it by people who really know their stuff,” Cassidy added.

And that’s where Republicans are right now – still searching for a deal, while the clock keeps ticking.

Federal appeals court keeps Trump travel and refugee order on hold

Published: Thursday, May 25, 2017 @ 2:37 PM
Updated: Thursday, May 25, 2017 @ 2:37 PM

In another legal setback for President Donald Trump, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals refused on Thursday to lift an injunction against his revised travel and refugee order, preventing the White House from suspending new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries, as this decision took another step on the way to a likely showdown on the matter at the U.S. Supreme Court.

As in earlier rulings, the judges cited the President’s own words calling for a “Muslim ban,” ruling that the order was basically an effort to target “Muslims for exclusion from the United States.”

“These statements, taken together, provide direct specific evidence” of what spurred the executive orders, the court’s majority wrote in a 202 page decision.

“President Trump’s desire to exclude Muslims from the United States,” the opinion read.

Not only did the ruling quote Mr. Trump, but also some of his top aides and advisers, like White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and others.

The judges rejected an argument by the Trump Administration that the order was done in the name of national security, saying the record shows Mr. Trump belatedly consulted agencies that deal with that matter, and only after his first travel order had been derailed in the courts.

The President’s order would impact people coming into the United States from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – Iraq had been on the original order, but was taken off when that first plan was revised.

The ruling was the first of two from federal appellate courts – the Ninth Circuit also must pass judgment on the plan.

“The Muslim ban continues to be 100% blocked from going into effect nationwide, by an overwhelming vote,” said lawyer Neal Katyal, who argued this same issue before the Ninth Circuit for the state of Hawaii.