Last Tuesday, President Donald Trump made his long awaited announcement of who he would nominate for the empty Supreme Court seat. He chose Neil Gorsuch, a judge who currently serves on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a decision that has drawn both praise and criticism.
Timothy Meyer, a professor of law at Vanderbilt, knows the new SCOTUS nominee personally: He clerked for Judge Gorsuch from 2007-2008 in Denver, Colorado. After working with him and getting to know him personally, he emphatically approves of this nomination.
“I think the President had made an excellent choice when he chose Judge Gorsuch,” Meyer said.
Professor Meyer, who now teaches a Constitutional Law course among others classes, originally sought out a law clerk opportunity with Judge Gorsuch because of the advice of one of his law school professors. Although that professor had worked within Barack Obama’s administration, he also served with Gorsuch in private practice and knew him well.
“He was just confirmed (to the Tenth Circuit Court), but he’s going to be brilliant,” Meyer recalled his professor telling him about Gorsuch about a decade ago.
After sending in an application and interviewing with Gorsuch later on, Meyer was offered the position. He noted how “incredibly impressive (and) kind” the Judge had been to him during that brief meeting, which led to him accepting the job. Even after other judges offered him law clerk positions, Meyer turned them down and calls his decision “one of the best decisions” he’s made.
“I am forever grateful both for that opportunity and that I had the common sense at 25 or 26, to say yes,” Meyer said.
From Judge to SCOTUS nominee
Prior to election day, Donald Trump released a list of 21 possible Supreme Court nominees, of which Gorsuch was one. At the time, Meyer noticed and believed that if Trump was elected, then Gorsuch “would be to my mind the best of that list.”
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he bubbled to the top when the President actually started looking through his options,” Meyer said.
To Meyer, a key attribute of Gorsuch is how he writes his opinions in an easily accessible way. Meyer explained how judges “describe the law” and “resolve the actual dispute of the parties,” instead of creating policies or making speeches on the floor of Congress as politicians do.
“Judge Gorsuch was always very keenly focused on that, and he writes his opinions very much with that in mind, making sure the parties themselves can understand why a dispute comes out the way it does and be sure that he gives fair consideration to both sides,” Meyer said.
During his clerkship, Meyer noted one specific case that really stuck with him as a strong representation of Judge Gorsuch’s work in his court. In the case, Dudnikov v. Chalk & Vermilion Fine Arts, Inc, a company based in the United Kingdom filed a take down order with eBay against a small shop, according to Meyer. This UK company had accused these sellers, based in Colorado, of violating the digital millennium copyright act. As a result, eBay removed the auction listings of the Colorado-based sellers as part of this take down. The plaintiffs initially took their opposition to the District Court in Colorado but were struck down because they ruled that the state was not the area of jurisdiction.
However, the Tenth Circuit Court would overturn that ruling, a case in which Judge Gorsuch wrote the opinion. The way in which he wrote this piece is what really stood out to Meyer. Gorsuch compared the case to a “bank shot in basketball,” in which the UK company’s take down order, while sent to eBay in California, was really intended for the company in Colorado. Much like a bank shot in basketball hits off the backboard with the intention of going through the hoop, Gorsuch saw this case in the same way.
“It was both a really clever and clear analogy to make to help everybody understand why it was that it was appropriate for the District Court in Colorado to exercise jurisdiction over this British company that had never been in Colorado,” Meyer said. “That was the first case I ever worked on that made a really strong impression on me in terms of both of how you should approach the lawyerly task and the judge’s task of evaluating cases.”
Much of the work Meyer performed as a clerk focused on research and on assisting in writing opinions and memos for court decisions. That required him to work extensively with the Judge and find reasons why a case should be resolved in a certain way. This skill of clear writing has been one particular area of emphasis for Meyer when he teaches students in the classroom.
“When I oversee students’ writing projects, which I do pretty frequently, I really try to emphasize exactly what he taught me, which is the importance of stating clearly and upfront what it is you’re saying and how it is you got there,” Meyer said.
The reaction to his nomination
After the announcement, many Republicans announced their support for Judge Gorsuch. However, some Democrats expressed displeasure with Trump’s choice, including House Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, who called Gorsuch “a very hostile appointment” and “well outside the mainstream of American legal thought.” Meyer, though, believes that his former boss is a fair judge and extremely deserving to serve on the country’s highest court.
He pointed to one case, United States of America v. Hasan Ali Hasan, involving a Somali immigrant, that stands out to Meyer for how Gorsuch handled it in a way that “that would run counter to this (hostile) narrative.” In it, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened up an investigation into the man’s arrival in the country years earlier. That led to a court hearing where he had to testify on his own behalf. Several months later, he had to once again speak in court, although there were some inconsistencies in his statements. As a result, the court indicted and convicted him of perjury.
However, when the case made its way to the Tenth Circuit Court, it was sent back down to the lower court for a retrial. In his opinion, Judge Gorsuch wrote that the defendant “may not have been able to communicate effectively in English,” a violation of the Court Interpreter’s Act.
“I think it’s very difficult, and I could give a bunch more cases like that…when you see those kinds of cases to say this is a guy who is a hostile pick,” Meyer said.
Descriptions of Gorsuch label him as a textualist and an originalist, two closely related styles of law interpretations that Meyer confirmed were accurate of him. Meyer explained that textualists look to “give effect to the words that are written,” while an originalist will look to interpret laws in ways by which the writers of the laws and statutes intended them to be understood.
“When we say he’s an originalist and a textualist, which he is, he feels himself to be constrained by the text,” Meyer said. “He’s trying to enforce the law as written. But that’s entirely common and consistent among judges of various political leanings.”
Gorsuch the “gentleman”
Outside of the office, Meyer highlighted how much Gorsuch enjoys the outdoors and how he tried to bring together his staff as much as possible. Meyer said he used to run with the Judge several times a week after work, even though he was never a runner before, in order to be around him more.
“He makes a big effort to both introduce everybody to Colorado: skiing, hiking, fly fishing and then also to really welcome them into his family,” Meyer said.
In addition, Gorsuch hosts yearly ski trips, where he invites all clerks, past and present, as well as reunions every five years. Meyer noted how accessible Gorsuch has been over the years and said that they stay in touch, talking regularly.
“We definitely stayed in touch, and he’s continued to be just an excellent mentor and a good friend,” Meyer said.
In fact, Gorsuch had been scheduled to come speak at the Vanderbilt Law School. However, Meyer isn’t so sure that the Judge will be able to visit now with all the upcoming obligations that come along with a SCOTUS nomination.
Even through all the great experiences at work, Meyer noted one experience in particular that really stood out during his time as a clerk. While in Colorado, Meyer’s son was turning one, and he and his wife didn’t know many people there at the time. After briefly mentioning his son’s birthday, Gorsuch took initiative and invited Meyer’s wife and son to the chambers for a party that he’ll never forget.
“It was just this incredibly gracious moment,” Meyer said. “He didn’t need to do that, it was obviously taking time out of the work day, but it was so important to him that we all feel welcome and that we all feel like a family, who supported each other.”
Meyers expressed how that experience was just one representation of Judge Gorsuch, who he referred to as “the epitome of a gentleman.”
“That is very much the way he approaches his clerks, his employees, and his task as a whole,” Meyer said. “That basically we should all treat each other with respect and with that kind of charity, that we should really be looking out for each other.”
Photos provided by Vanderbilt University and Wikimedia