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Will Gorsuch abandon his judicial philosophy to get what he wants?

Dana Milbank on

WASHINGTON -- As gay and transgender Americans march inexorably toward equality, Justice Neil Gorsuch is on the horns of a dilemma: Does he jettison his judicial philosophy to slow their progress?

Gorsuch, President Trump's first appointee to the Supreme Court, literally wrote the book (published last month) on judicial "textualism," the philosophy that says judges must rule on the plain meaning of the law, not legislative intent nor desired outcomes.

So he's in a corner now as the high court decides whether to bless employment discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and if you set aside cultural views on homosexuality 55 years ago and look only at the law itself, it's clear: Firing somebody for not following traditional sex stereotypes -- say, a man who dates a man or a woman who was identified as male at birth -- is discrimination on the basis of sex. How can sexual orientation not be about sex?

Gorsuch acknowledged as much during Tuesday's argument, telling David Cole, lawyer for the transgender plaintiff (the cases involve both transgender and gay discrimination), to "assume for the moment I'm with you on the textual evidence. It's close, OK? We're not talking about extra-textual stuff."

But then the justice pivoted in a decidedly non-textual direction. He asked whether judges should "take into consideration the massive social upheaval that would be entailed in such a decision, and the possibility that Congress didn't think about it."

What? This from the guy who just wrote that judges shouldn't "do anything other than interpret statutes according to the ordinary meaning of their terms," who ridiculed attempts to divine legislative intent from the "flotsam" of history, and who derided "consequentialists" who "seek to select the outcome calculated to produce optimal policy results"?

 

Now, he's asking about congressional intent and policy results. That's a good bit of intellectual chicanery.

Gorsuch invited Cole to contemplate a "drastic" change to gender-neutral bathrooms and dress codes (neither of which was at issue in Tuesday's cases). When Cole said available evidence so far finds "no upheaval," Gorsuch shot back: "Did you want to address [the] arguments or not?"

"I thought I was," Cole said.

He was. But Gorsuch didn't want to hear it. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already forbid LGBTQ discrimination. Where is Gorsuch's imagined cataclysm?

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