Whitehouse Expresses Concern On U.S. Supreme Court Going On a Conservative "Bender"

Feb 6, 2017

Whitehouse talks with Rhode Islanders at Roger Williams University in Providence.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said Monday that conservative Supreme Court nominees by President Donald Trump threaten to strengthen corporate interests while weakening the rights of minority groups and other Americans.

Speaking ahead of a constituent meeting at the Providence campus of Roger Williams University, Whitehouse said he won't decide his vote on the nomination of Trump nominees Neil Gorsuch until after hearing from Gorsuch. At the same time, Whitehouse said he fears where a conservative majority will take the Supreme Court.

"They’ve tended to go on kind of a bender of big corporate special interest Republican election interests and far-right social agenda decisions, five-to-four, not trying to bring anyone else along on the court," the senator told reporters.

Asked whether Democrats should be obstinate in opposing Trump nominees, Whitehouse said, "Selectively. I mean, if they're up to no good, we should try really hard to stop it. But we also have to recognize that when they were blocking Merrick Garland, they had the majority and they had the ability to simply not call him up. In the minority, we're going to face hearings on Mr. Gorsuch, and we're going to face votes on him, and there's nothing to be done about that."

Garland was the President Obama's nominee to fill a Supreme Court seat after the death of Antonin Scalia. Garland did not receive a Senate hearing despite being nominated with close to a year left in Obama's time in the White House.

Whitehouse said his first impression of Gorsuch is that "he is a very well-qualified and well-educated person. He seems to lean in favor of corporate interests against individual interests, in the reviews of his decisions that I've read. And I have no feeling other than the history is, when you give Republicans five members on the Supreme Court, they go on a bender, and deliver all these five-to-four decisions that they could never get in the ordinary course."

Trump has encouraged Senate Republicans to pursue the nuclear option -- changing legislative rules to lower the number of votes from 60 to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. Whitehouse said that change won't come easily, due to a number of what he called "institutionalists" among the Senate GOP ranks. At the same time, he acknowledged Senate Democrats face a challenging landscape in 2018, due to the number of seats that are up for re-election.

Whitehouse said Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has failed to live up to a vow to decide cases impartially. After Roberts said he would call balls and strikes, the senator said, the justice "went around wrenching the strike zone, full-time."

In criticizing five to four decisions on the Supreme Court, Whitehouse repeatedly cited Citizens United. He said the decision greatly expanded corporate interests and "dark money" and their impact in US elections.

Confirmation hearings for Gorsuch have not yet been scheduled. 

During a meeting with about 25 people representing groups like the RI ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Clean Water Action, and the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence, among others, many speakers asked Whitehouse to take a highly skeptical stance toward Gorsuch -- or oppose his nomination outright.

"This is absolutely a fight worth fighting," said Providence lawyer Miriam Weizenbaum, representing the Center for Justice, a public-interest law center.

Kate Monteiro, a longtime advocate for gay and lesbian rights, expressed concern that a conservative Supreme Court would reduce the ability of individuals to be heard in court.

Yet one constituent, David Silvia, said he believes Gorsuch would be an independent-minded judge, and that her merits support, in part since Trump received almost 40 percent of the presidential vote in Rhode Island.