Democrats revisit Garland snub during Neil Gorsuch hearings

Senate Democrats are reliving the snub of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, at the hearing of President Donald Trump's pick Monday.

The first three Democrats speaking at the hearing of Judge Neil Gorsuch in the Senate Judiciary Committee began their speeches invoking the decision by Republicans to refuse a hearing or vote on Garland last year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Sen. Patrick Leahy called it an "extraordinary blockade" that was "totally unprecedented in our country's whole history."

Leahy criticized Trump for relying on conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society last year to vet and recommend his list of potential Supreme Court picks.

"Senate Republicans made a big show last year about respecting the voice of the American people in this process," he said, referring to Trump's election victory. "Now they're arguing that the Senate should rubber-stamp their nominees selected by extreme interest groups and nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes."

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz responded later by saying in essence: We won.

Cruz sharply defended Republicans' decision to hold the seat vacant, saying the president election was also a "referendum on the kind of justice that should replace Justice Scalia."

"Given the engagement of the electorate nationally on this central issue, I would suggest that Judge Gorsuch is no ordinary nominee," Cruz said.

"Because of this unique and transparent process -- unprecedented in the nation's history -- his nomination carries with it a super legitimacy," he continued. "The American people played a very direct role in helping choose this nominee."

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said the actions blocking Garland and subsequent Gorsuch nomination "is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government. That is why the Senate Republicans kept the Supreme Court seat vacant for more than a year and why they left 30 judicial nominees who had received bipartisan approval of this committee to die on the Senate calendar as President Obama left office."

Leahy said the GOP is conducting "court unpacking scheme," harkening back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's failed effort in the 1930s to pack the Supreme Court with more justices, a move lawmakers rejected.

"Remember the Judiciary Committee once stood against a court-packing scheme of a Democratic president that would have eroded judicial independence, and that was a proud moment," Leahy said. "Now Republicans on this committee are guilty of their own court-unpacking scheme."

Monday is the first day of four hearings on Gorsuch a federal appeals court judge from Colorado, likely to carry on the conservative legacy of Scalia and be an early legacy-establishing win for Trump.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, used his opening statement to decry "executive overreach" and expressed "alarm" over "the threat it poses to the separation of powers."

Discussing the need for an independent jurist, Grassley said, "Good judges understand this. They know it isn't their job to fix the law. In a democracy, that right belongs to be the people."

Democrats going after Gorsuch dissents, Trump policies

Democrats will also use the hearing to go after Trump's early actions such as his travel ban for people from seven -- then revised to six -- majority-Muslim countries, which has been blocked by federal courts from coast to coast.

The question, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said of Gorsuch, is "whether he will protect the legal and constitutional rights of all Americans."

"President Trump repeatedly promised to appoint someone in the mold of Justice Scalia," she said, "and that the nomination of Judge Gorsuch illustrates that he is a man of his word. For those of us on this side, our job is not to theoretically evaluate this or that legal doctrine, or to review Judge Gorsuch's record in a vacuum. Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable mainstream conservative or is he not."

Under the radar

Gorsuch's nomination has flown under the radar in Washington as the focus has been on the litany of Trump actions such as the travel ban, budget proposal that would cut billions of dollars from agencies, executive orders and claims about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. At the same time, Republicans are pushing through legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare.

About a dozen people in the audience are wearing red "stop Gorsuch" shirts.

Each senator on the Judiciary Committee will speak Monday, followed by two Colorado senators introducing Gorsuch as well as Neal Katyal -- a former Obama acting solicitor general. Gorsuch himself is expected to give his opening statement in mid-afternoon. He will face questions from senators Tuesday.

Grassley announced he expects a committee vote on Gorsuch's nomination on April 3.

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