Judge Neil Gorsuch is no stranger to political infighting. His mother was criticized for spending cuts and easing rules as head of the EPA, eventually resigning after Congress cited her for contempt for refusing to turn over documents related to a toxic-waste program.
WASHINGTON — Judge Neil Gorsuch’s first taste of rough-and-tumble Washington, D.C., politics was bitter and lingering.
He was 15 and his mother was a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration caught in an ugly showdown with Congress. When she was forced to step down, her reputation in tatters, young Neil was furious.
“You should never have resigned,” he told his mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, by her later account. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You only did what the president ordered. Why are you quitting? You raised me not to be a quitter. Why are you a quitter?”
More than three decades later, Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge in Denver, has been nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump and faces a political culture even more caustic than the one that destroyed his mother’s public career. Like her, he is a committed conservative and can expect strong opposition, but where she was bold and brash, he has advanced to the pinnacle of the judiciary with understatement and polish.
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Now 49, he arrives at his own moment of testing as a child of the Reagan revolution who saw up close the promise and the perils. He inherited a frontier skepticism of government rooted in his home of Colorado and nurtured in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s. While studying at the liberal enclaves of Columbia and Harvard, he rebelled against the dominant thinking to develop a conservative philosophy that has propelled him to the threshold of the Supreme Court.
Despite the family ordeal, friends and relatives said, he emerged from his youth tempered about politics yet not soured on public service. He decided to pursue goals similar to his mother’s, but along a different path.
Burford, known as Anne Gorsuch until she remarried in 1983, was the first woman to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She argued that states were better custodians of resources and that market forces would bring more discipline to regulation. As she cut spending and pared back rules, critics called her an enemy of the environment. Her downfall came when, at White House direction, she refused to turn over documents related to a toxic-waste program. Congress cited her for contempt.
“It was an example to him of what the realpolitik of Washington could be like,” said Richard Segal, a Harvard Law School classmate who is a lawyer in San Diego. “He viewed his mother as an environmentalist, and his mother viewed herself as an environmentalist. And meanwhile she was made the poster child of the view that the Reagan administration was just out there to rape the environment.”
The teenager was his mother’s conscience. “Neil knew from the beginning the seriousness of my problems,” she wrote in a memoir before her death in 2004. He was “smart as a whip” and “had an unerring sense of fairness, as do many people his age.” When she resigned, “he was really upset.”
By most accounts, he did not dwell on it later in life, but it clearly echoed in his work. In preparing a moot court brief at Harvard on workplace safety, he tried to add material concerning the EPA that did not fit, recalled a classmate, Ellen Bublick, who is now a law professor at the University of Arizona. In his time as an appeals court judge in Denver, his most notable writings have concerned the power of government regulators.
“We talked about that prior history in relation to that,” Bublick said. “He definitely was proud of his mom and had a sense that in the Reagan era certain people took a fall for him in order to protect him. And I think that was really his view of what happened to his mom.”
Neil McGill Gorsuch’s earliest years were spent in the West, where at Rocky Mountain campsites and fishing streams he internalized a faith in rugged individualism.
He grew up in a three-bedroom ranch-style house in the east Denver neighborhood. of Hilltop. His parents, Anne and David Gorsuch, were lawyers who had three children: Neil in 1967, Stephanie in 1969 and J.J. in 1973. His mother raised them Roman Catholic; his father was not religious. (Neil Gorsuch is now Episcopalian, according to his brother, possibly inspired by his time studying at Oxford University.)
Studious but not standoffish, Neil shared a bedroom with his brother and attended Christ the King, a Roman Catholic school. Relatives and friends recalled him lugging stacks of books and once rounding the baseball diamond in well-worn cowboy boots after leaving his athletic shoes at home. “If anybody was going to be the president, it was going to be Neil Gorsuch,” said Gina Carbone, 49, a classmate.
In 1976, Anne Gorsuch was elected to the state Legislature, often aligning herself with a small but powerful group of conservatives, dubbed the “House Crazies,” who were determined to cut taxes and loosen regulations. Women’s groups supported her campaign, but in office she led a fight to kill the Colorado State Commission on Women. Fervently anti-abortion rights, she was, one politician told The Washington Post in 1983, “almost paranoid about any kind of abortion legislation.”
She rose quickly. “She was very prominent in the shaping of policy,” said Steve Durham, a leader of the House Crazies. She had a “knack and ability to get along with people and put them at ease.” She also was famously tough. The Rocky Mountain News wrote that she “could kick a bear to death with her bare feet.”
After two terms, Anne Gorsuch became one of three Coloradans to take prominent posts in the Reagan administration, along with James Watt, the interior secretary, and Robert Burford, director of the Bureau of Land Management. Dubbed the “Colorado mafia,” they managed the nation’s natural resources with a fierce belief that the government had gone too far in regulating private enterprise. It was widely believed that they had the backing of Joseph Coors, the conservative Colorado beer magnate.
By the time Anne Gorsuch moved to Washington, D.C., in 1981, she was headed for a divorce, and the children toggled between the capital and Colorado.
Acting the part
Neil Gorsuch soon had a stepfather when his mother married Robert Burford, whom his mother had met in the state Legislature.
Known for wearing furs and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Anne Gorsuch Burford became a prominent face of the new administration as she cut back lawsuits against polluters and tried to relax parts of the Clean Air Act.
“There was obviously a lot of controversy regarding her work as she was carrying out the president’s program,” Ed Meese, a top Reagan adviser, recalled. “I’m sure that undoubtedly had an impact on her son.”
J.J. Gorsuch, 43, now a vice president of a Denver marketing-technology company, said his mother’s political life had shaped the family psyche but ultimately made his brother stronger. “If anything, it probably prepared him for the experience ahead in a great way,” he said. “He knows better than most how ugly the political process might get. So in that sense it’s hopefully prepared him for the nomination process.”
A dissenting voice
Gorsuch arrived at Columbia in 1985 as the historically liberal university was recovering from student protests the previous spring and beginning to divest from corporations operating in South Africa. In three years on campus — he graduated a year early — he emerged as the intellectual leader of a resurgent right. It was “a happy band of dissenters,” as Brian Domitrovic, a classmate and fellow conservative, put it.
His eloquence impressed many. That he was tall, clean cut and handsome only helped. He danced and drank Manhattans and martinis, Domitrovic said. He joined Phi Gamma Delta, a fraternity with a reputation for partying, and quietly attended religious services.
But principally, Gorsuch became known as a fierce and lucid writer in the Columbia Daily Spectator, where he published columns, and later The Federalist Paper, which he helped found. Part newspaper, part opinion journal, The Federalist Paper drew comparisons to the conservative Dartmouth Review.
In March 1987, as students debated the fraternity system’s treatment of women and minorities, Gorsuch co-wrote a piece defending all-male clubs. In a familiar rhetorical move, he reframed the issue as free speech. In their “heavy handed moralism,” he wrote, the system’s critics missed “the fact that Columbia is a pluralistic university, that its fraternity is equally pluralistic, with options available for everyone.”
That spring, as students boycotted Coors beer in a labor dispute, posters on campus alleged that The Federalist Paper, which accepted the company’s advertising, had received funding from the conservative Heritage Foundation, financed by the Coors family. Gorsuch mocked the “professional protesters” who had created the posters, and he threatened a libel suit.
“He had a real regal way of writing about this stuff that made us look small,” said Tom Kamber, a leader of the liberals. “His role was really to write these screeds that would try to take the winds out of our sails.”
An optimistic time
The battle continued at Harvard Law School, where Gorsuch arrived in 1988 along with a young man from Chicago named Barack Obama. The two did not intersect much — Obama was six years older — but they mirrored each other as intellectual leaders who managed to disagree without being disagreeable. “Neil was not quite as public a person as Barack was, but at the same time, for the people who knew him, he was very well-respected,” said classmate Segal.
Gorsuch befriended liberals, including Norm Eisen, later a White House aide and ambassador under Obama. “He stood out among the conservative group in not being loud,” Eisen said. “He managed to stay above that while making his conservative positions clear. I thought it was impressive.”
Through all of this, Gorsuch made little mention of his famous mother. Indeed, one friend who stayed close after law school said he had realized the relationship only years later. Once when a fellow student said something disparaging about her on the assumption that he was not related, he brushed it off.
“He deflected it in a very classy way that made me think it was not the first time somebody had said something like that,” Eisen said.