The US Senate has confirmed Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s selection for the country’s highest court, after a historic change to the congressional body’s rules.
The final vote count was 54 in support to 45 in opposition, passing a simple majority – all that was needed after Republicans voted to trigger the so-called nuclear option, which changed Senate rules. If Republicans had not deployed the nuclear option, Mr Gorsuch would have needed to reach 60 votes to be confirmed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made the decision to change Senate rules, said Mr Gorsuch would “make the American people proud”.
Mr Gorsuch, 49, occupies the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart.
He previously served as a judge in the 10th circuit appeals court and is expected to interpret the US Constitution in much of the same way Mr Scalia did: a strict and literal reading of the document.
During his confirmation hearing, several Democratic Senators questioned the conservative about his stance on landmark cases like Roe v. Wade, which protected a woman’s right to get an abortion. Mr Gorsuch repeated his claims that he respected the precedent set by the Supreme Court in that case and others.
However, Democrats still had reservations about his views and record on key issues such as voting rights laws and euthanasia for terminally ill patients, among others.
They were also in opposition to Mr Gorsuch because of what Senate Republicans had done in denying a hearing to Merrick Garland, a judge nominated by former President Obama in 2016. No nominee had ever been denied a hearing in front of the Senate.
It appeared to Democrats to be a blatantly political move on the part of Republicans who said Mr Obama was simply trying to push his nominee through during the hotly contested presidential election.
They retaliated and filibustered Mr Gorsuch’s confirmation vote on 6 April, another first in American history.
As a result of the rules change voted on by Republicans, every Supreme Court nominee going forward will only require 51 votes in order to be confirmed.
Some worry that the future of the top court in the country will become more polarised as a result, because more ideological nominees would make it through the confirmation process rather than those more committed to an independent judiciary.
However, Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and a former judicial fellow at the US Supreme Court, told The Independent every president has nominated ideological jurists and that the current court’s voting record shows justices exercise independence from politics.
Dr Perry is more concerned about the politicisation and public opinion of the filibuster and nuclear option.
“Typically, a majority of Americans has approved of the Supreme Court,” she said. “Those ratings are sliding below 50 per cent now, an indication that dragging the judicial nomination process into the muck and mire of Washington politics is not advantageous.”
Regardless, Mr Gorsuch will hit the ground running in his new position. The Supreme Court has been operating with only eight justices since Mr Scalia’s death. His appointment means a possible tie-breaker vote on certain cases.
His private swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for the week of 10 April.