The most important senator involved in the Supreme Court confirmation of Neil Gorsuch is likely a man you’ve never heard the name of — Angus King.
The 72-year-old junior Senator from Maine could very well end up as the final authority in propelling Gorsuch to the lifetime appointment, or sending him back to the Tenth Circuit.
In order for Gorsuch to be confirmed without the likes of a nasty filibuster fight, President Trump’s nominee will need to win over King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and whose vote is one of about a dozen that will determine Gorsuch’s fate. King spent nearly four hours at a town hall Sunday night fielding questions and comments about the high court nominee, but provided little insight into which way he could possibly be leaning.
However, he dropped subtle hints on how he could ultimately arrive at a “yes” vote on Gorsuch, one of the earliest selections of President Trump’s administration, and one of the few decisions he’s made that Democrats have faced struggle with combatting.
“Whatever else you can say about him, my sense from his record is, he’s exceedingly independent,” King said Sunday to the hundreds that had packed a university auditorium to hear his opinion of happenings at the Supreme Court.
“Many of his decisions are contrary to the Justice Department, the immigration services, various agencies,” King said of Gorsuch. “He’s a real stickler for limits on executive power.”
King further elaborated on why he believes that trait is so important, speaking to an overwhelmingly anti-Trump crowd at the University of Southern Maine.
“To be honest with you, it’s one of the things that’s weighing in my mind,” he said. “Because as many of you have pointed out, with this president, it’s going to be important to have an independent judiciary that will say: ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
While Democrats from traditionally red states have been the prime targets for pro-Gorsuch folks, King and his fellow senators from perennial swing vote states could prove to be even more influential as Trump and his team search for at least eight votes from the other side of the aisle to confirm the nominee. The ninth seat of the nation’s highest court has now been vacant for more than a year, since the death of Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13, 2016.
King’s ultimate opinion of Gorsuch is unfolding as one of the biggest and most consequential tests of his political independence.
King has said, in so many words, that he won’t make up his mind about Gorsuch for some time, confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin March 20, and Republicans want to stage a final floor vote by early- or mid-April.
King noted that Gorsuch is “very deferential to precedent” and didn’t seem to take issue with Gorsuch’s position toward the so-called Chevron deference — the view that judges should defer to federal agencies’ interpretations of certain laws. Gorsuch has signaled he disagrees with that view.
Several Democrats have spoken out against Gorsuch’s take on the matter, but King noted that, for instance, Scott Pruitt now leads the Environmental Protection Agency, and “maybe it’s not so great to have Scott Pruitt decide what the Clean Air Act means.”
After the town hall, he told reporters he “very definitely” had concerns about the judge’s decision to side with Hobby Lobby when it challenged Obamacare’s contraceptive coverage requirement on religious grounds. That ruling that has become one of the biggest sticking points for Democratic senators.
“I’m really not leaning,” King said. “I think, you know, there are concerns. But there are also strengths.”
One constituent told King he was “discouraged” that the senator was even seriously considering Gorsuch’s nomination. Others used the Supreme Court discussion as a chance to vent their frustrations with Trump. “Why should Trump’s nominee even be considered until after a full, independent investigation?” asked one woman.
“We are where we are,” King said. “And the reality is, we have to deal with the situation as it plays out now.” King said he didn’t “think [Gorsuch] should be strictly judged on the idea that it’s Mr. Trump’s nominee.”
Gorsuch did have at least one ally in the crowd. Leah Bressack, who clerked for him from 2009 to 2011, told the audience of the judge’s “truly independent” approach to deciding cases and stressed that he worked in cooperation with other judges with different viewpoints. Later, King called Bressack’s comments “very important.”
A handful of Senate Democrats are preparing for re-election campaigns in 2018, five from deep-red states have come under heavy political fire to facilitate Gorsuch’s confirmation. But King is also on the ballot next fall and has his own political calculus to consider as he weighs his Gorsuch decision.
Paul LePage, the state’s term-limited Republican governor, has repeatedly said he may run against King next year.
“We elected President Trump. We’ve elected Governor LePage twice, and these people support Neil Gorsuch and strict constitutionalists in judgeships,” said Penny Morrell, the Maine state director for the conservative advocacy group Concerned Women for America. During the forum, she urged King to vote for Gorsuch.
During his first term in the Senate, King, 72, has carved out a reputation as a studious and deliberative legislator, even attending hearings held by committees he doesn’t sit on because he wants to hear testimony firsthand. He said Sunday he would do the same for Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing.
King, himself a former Maine governor who practiced law before entering politics, said he has plowed through about two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 opinions in which Gorsuch has been involved.