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Gorsuch, a Conservative Firebrand in College, Evolved Into a Conciliator

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/19/2017 Jess Bravin

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As a Columbia University undergraduate, Neil Gorsuch made it his business to make people mad. An outspoken conservative from Colorado on a Manhattan campus where liberal views were assumed, he wrote columns for the student newspaper and founded a right-leaning publication, aiming to call out what he saw as the conformity and hypocrisy of prevailing opinion.

“He was deeply committed to presenting himself as a kind of heroic ideological outlier,” said Irene Tucker, then a news editor at Columbia’s Spectator student daily, a target of Mr. Gorsuch’s fusillades, “so there was a theatricality to his conservatism.”

His provocative persona recalled that of his mother, the late Anne Gorsuch Burford, one of the most incendiary members of President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

There is little indication Judge Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, has abandoned his deeply conservative views.

More recent years, though, have seen him assuming a conciliatory posture toward those with views to his left, engaging them with courtesy, treating their opinions with respect and winning their regard. For those who know his family, his graciousness recalls that of his gentle and patient father, a late Denver lawyer named David Gorsuch.

© Joshua Roberts/Reuters As confirmation hearings begin Monday, the reservoir of bipartisan goodwill he has created could prove invaluable, with several Democrats testifying that his agreeable temperament and intellectual honesty make him as good a nominee as they can expect from a Republican president.

“He has modesty and humility alongside smarts,” said Yale University law professor Akhil Amar, who has advised Senate Democrats on judicial nominations. Although he doesn’t know Judge Gorsuch well, he said, “that’s his reputation, and that’s what I think I see on the page when I read his opinions.”

Several other Democratic lawyers steeped in the Supreme Court have called for Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation, undercutting efforts by some Senate Democrats and liberal groups to paint him as a heartless ideologue.

Such admiration puts Judge Gorsuch, 49 years old, in an elite class of lawyers whom many in both wings believe can be trusted to safeguard the court. Others with similar reputations include Republican John Roberts, confirmed as chief justice in 2005 with significant Democratic support, and Democrat Merrick Garland, a federal judge whose 2016 Supreme Court nomination fell victim to Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider any candidate President Barack Obama proposed.

In 2002, then in private practice, Mr. Gorsuch suggested an aspiration to join that club with an article published by UPI decrying the “partisan bickering over ideological ‘control’ ” that he said blocked “some of the most impressive judicial nominees.”

“Take Merrick Garland and John Roberts, two appointees to the U.S. Court of Appeals,” wrote Mr. Gorsuch. “Both are widely considered to be among the finest lawyers of their generation,” yet each had his confirmation held up. “Litmus tests, grudge matches and payback are not the ways forward.”

After Mr. Trump announced his nomination in January, Judge Gorsuch phoned Judge Garland, said Michael Trent, a lifelong friend of Judge Gorsuch. “It was one friend reaching out to another,” he said, “and saying, ‘I hope I’m half the judge that you would have been.’ ”

Judge Garland declined to comment regarding the call. The White House team handling Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation declined to make him available to comment for this article.

It isn’t clear what prompted Judge Gorsuch’s transformation from ideological provocateur to evangelist of civility. A shift that appears to have begun when he was in law school was all but complete by 2006, when the Senate unanimously confirmed him to the federal appeals court in Denver.

One early influence pointed him toward political provocation. As a child in Denver, he saw his mother burst onto the 1970s political scene as part of an insurgent conservative movement in the GOP. Elected to the Colorado House in 1976, she stood out among newcomers backed by conservative beer magnate Joseph Coors.

“She was dynamic and she was brilliant,” said former state Rep. Cliff Dodge, another member of the House Crazies, as the faction was known. She would bring her children with her to canvass during campaigns, he said.

Mr. Gorsuch’s parents split up and in 1983 his mother married former Colorado House Speaker Robert Burford, who like her had come to Washington for a Reagan administration appointment.

As the Environmental Protection Agency’s head, Mrs. Gorsuch—she later adopted the Burford surname—wore fur and drove a gas-guzzler, seeming to mock the EPA’s mission as she worked to slash its budget and regulations. She resigned in 1983 after being cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over agency records relating to Superfund-program mismanagement. She died in 2004.

In a 1986 memoir, “Are You Tough Enough?,” she recounted Neil’s saying: “ ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. You only did what the president ordered…You raised me not to be a quitter. Why are you a quitter?’ ”

“It was hard for a kid to understand what was going on,” said his younger brother, J.J., “and she was caught in a particularly rocky situation there, of being told to do one thing by your boss and another thing by Congress.”

At Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit boarding school in Maryland, Mr. Gorsuch wore his politics on his sleeve, joking in a yearbook entry that he was founder of a “Fascism Forever Club.” Classmate Larry Rocca, now a New York writer, said that was a jab at the faculty, whom Mr. Gorsuch considered too liberal.

At Columbia, where he enrolled in 1985, some classmates found him inspiring. “He was absolutely brilliant,” said Michael Behringer, now an adviser for private-equity firm Warburg Pincus, who met him the first day of class and remains a friend, “and you’re always drawn to brilliant people.”

Progressives who appreciated Mr. Gorsuch’s intellect included Laura Dower, now a New York children’s-book author. “He was a really compelling, incredibly smart kid, and I’ve always been a flaky liberal,” she said. “I learned to really listen to the other side. He’s sort of an exceptional person who I flatly disagree with.”

On the other hand, said Ms. Tucker, the Spectator editor and now a University of California, Irvine, English professor, “he was committed to showing the way he was a freethinker and everyone else was conforming to the lockstep liberalism of the campus.”

That tone showed in his columns, including one in 1987: “As the world and other colleges change with the times, as hair styles come and go, as career trends ebb and flow, Columbia remains entranced with the same slogans, styles, and sympathies it has had since the ’60s.”

A Gorsuch nemesis was student activist Jordan Kushner. “I didn’t think the atmosphere was liberal enough,” said Mr. Kushner, a Minneapolis civil-rights and criminal-defense lawyer.

Things reached a boil when Mr. Gorsuch’s journal, the Federalist Paper, exaggerated Mr. Kushner’s efforts to discourage the campus grocery from carrying Coors, a boycott target because the beer fortune was bankrolling right-wing organizations. The paper ran a story that said “I was kicking these Coors kegs, kicking and scratching the Coors kegs and being dragged off by security,” said Mr. Kushner, adding that all he did was discuss the boycott with the store manager.

A heated phone conversation with Mr. Gorsuch followed. “He said it was embarrassing that they had gotten the story wrong,” Mr. Kushner said. “He also told me, ‘America: Love it or leave it.’ ”

Mr. Behringer, Mr. Gorsuch’s longtime friend, said he found it hard to believe Mr. Gorsuch said that. “Neil was far too clever and intelligent to say something so banal or trite.” Federalist Paper editors wrote a letter to the Spectator retracting the claim Mr. Kushner was dragged off by security but sticking by the kicking and scratching.

Mr. Gorsuch appears to have begun toning down his activism when he moved on to Harvard Law School in 1988 and found a larger conservative community. He joined the Federalist Society, which grooms right-leaning lawyers for powerful positions. He was “a very courteous and well-spoken gentlemanly person,” recalled the Federalist Society adviser, Prof. Charles Fried. “He was more scholarly and more intellectual than some of them.”

Classmates from Oxford, to which he won a highly competitive Marshall Scholarship, had varied recollections. “He definitely seemed rigid in his thinking,” said fellow Marshall Scholar Annabel Park. “This is what he believed: Take it or leave it.” Ms. Park, today a documentary filmmaker and progressive activist in Washington, D.C., said Mr. Gorsuch stuck out for his vociferous criticism of Bill Clinton, then running for president, repeating “all that right-wing stuff that came up during the election, about him being ‘Slick Willie’ and the infidelities and all that disingenuousness,” she said. “It was just tiresome.”

In Mr. Gorsuch’s field, philosophy of law, some students with different approaches built friendships with him at Oxford. “Everything was extremely friendly, professional, focused on the quality of the arguments and getting the arguments right,” said Christian Mammen, whose dissertation was critical of textualism, a legal method championed by late Justice Antonin Scalia and embraced by Judge Gorsuch that discounts legislative history in favor of strict reliance on statutory text.

Mr. Mammen, a San Francisco lawyer who calls himself a “progressive Democrat,” said he may have affected his friend’s personal life more than his intellectual views. Mr. Gorsuch had left Oxford for a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship. When he returned, his friends decided he needed a date.

At a poker game, Mr. Gorsuch mentioned meeting a woman the prior year in a college dining hall. Mr. Mammen realized he was describing Louise Burletson, who had since graduated, and he passed along her contacts. The two later married and had two daughters.

Returning stateside, Mr. Gorsuch plunged into corporate litigation, joining in 1996 the firm now named Kellogg Hansen.

While the onetime firebrand had evolved into a respectable Republican lawyer, his ambitions to shape policy remained. His chance came in 2004, when he joined prep-school buddy Mr. Trent to help on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Within two weeks, he wrote to the White House political director, Matt Schlapp, offering his services.

“Matt, I spent some time in Ohio working on the election,” he wrote in an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. “What a magnificent result for the country. For me personally, the experience was invigorating and a great deal of fun. And the experience rekindled my interest in public service and a strong desire to work for this Administration.”

In 2005, he was appointed principal deputy to Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, who oversaw the Justice Department’s civil litigation. When a vacancy arose on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006, Mr. Gorsuch saw a chance to return to Colorado and make an impact on the law. He was nominated and confirmed without controversy.

As a circuit judge, he built a reputation as collegial and civic-minded. He issued conservative opinions but largely avoided the snark and point-scoring that some judges engaged in. He hired clerks from beyond his ideological camp, including several who became clerks for liberal Supreme Court justices and now advocate for his elevation.

“He’s a towering intellect. Anybody who knows him at all will tell you that,” said former Gorsuch clerk Jason Murray, now of the Denver firm Bartlit Beck. He displays “impressive humility,” Mr. Murray said. “If you read his opinions, they march through the legal issue with great care and great respect for the arguments of the opposing side.”

Mr. Murray went from Judge Gorsuch’s chambers to those of Justice Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee who was hunting buddies with Justice Scalia, and he predicts the two would get along well. While they differ in orientation, he said, “they are speaking the same language.”

Those who aren’t sold include Wake Forest University law professor Russell Gold, who clerked for 10th Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero, a Bill Clinton appointee. “Gorsuch was always very careful,” he said. “He always had an eye on the Supreme Court, and was sort of tiptoeing around everything quite carefully to get there.”

While Judge Gorsuch hasn’t ruled directly on some of the most divisive issues, his court opinions, political pedigree and off-the-bench writings suggest a serious judge whose views would plant him on the Supreme Court’s right wing where Justice Scalia left off on issues from gay rights to gun regulations.

University of Colorado law professor Melissa Hart, a Democrat who has endorsed Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation, said “the man that I know today seems very different from the college reactionary that he was.”

Ms. Hart said Judge Gorsuch sometimes has sounded like his mother, the political streetfighter. But he also was close to his late father, who taught the son to fish. (“He’s more like our dad,” said brother J.J. Gorsuch, “most like our maternal grandfather, who was the picture of patience.”)

“Everyone who talks about his father talks about what an extraordinary gentleman he was and how gracious he was,” Ms. Hart said. “When I think of Judge Gorsuch, those are the two people who raised him. And maybe both of those two qualities are there.”

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