FEATURE

The Education of Neil Gorsuch

As a Columbia undergrad, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch '88CC learned how to argue his opinions.

by Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS Published Fall 2017
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In January, when President Donald J. Trump nominated Neil McGill Gorsuch ’88CC to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia, politicos immediately scrambled to find out more about this critical appointee and what he stood for. Senators picked through Gorsuch’s ten-year record as a judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, while the press delved into his formative years, especially the ones he spent as an undergraduate at Columbia.

There was plenty to sift through. In the 1980s, the popularity of President Ronald Reagan triggered what the New York Times later called a “youthquake of conservative campus activism,” and Gorsuch was one of Columbia College’s most prolific conservatives. A contributor to Spectator and a cofounder of the alternative tabloid the Federalist Paper, Gorsuch published editorials and columns that expressed support for the Contras in Nicaragua, pushed back against the campus’s “tyrannical atmosphere” of reflexive liberalism, and criticized left-wing activists for their “muddled thinking” and “vigilante justice.” Much was made of his yearbook quote, a sardonic quip from Henry Kissinger: “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Back then, these sentiments earned Gorsuch a reputation as a rabble-rouser. But thirty years later, many who knew him in college are eager to share a more nuanced view of the young man who came to Columbia determined to leave his mark. Some remember his intelligence and charm, others his dry humor. Even those who disagreed with him give him credit for stirring up vigorous debate on a predominantly liberal campus.

Indeed, during Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings in March, more than 150 of his Columbia and Barnard compatriots presented a petition to leading members of the Senate supporting his nomination. “The hallmark of Neil Gorsuch’s tenure at Columbia was his unflagging commitment to respectful and open dialogue on campus,” the petition stated. The signatories were mixed politically, ethnically, economically, geographically, religiously, and professionally. But their verdict was unanimous: “Despite an often contentious environment, Neil was a steadfast believer that we could disagree without being disagreeable.”

Gorsuch wasn’t just interested in establishing his own socially and politically conservative voice, says Federalist Paper cofounder P. T. Waters ’88CC, now managing director of Himmelsbach Holdings, a clean-fuel technology company. “What he really wanted was the John Lockean discussion of ideas. He wanted an open and fair debate.”

 

While Justice Gorsuch is not currently giving interviews, his credentials are a matter of record. He graduated Columbia Phi Beta Kappa and with a prestigious Truman Scholarship. In 1991 he earned Latin honors at Harvard Law School, where one of his classmates was Barack Obama ’83CC. He clerked for retired Supreme Court associate justice Byron R. White and sitting associate justice Anthony M. Kennedy. His impressive academic career culminated in a doctorate from Oxford in 2004. From 1995 to 2005 he worked in the Washington, DC, law firm of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel as a litigator (he became a partner in 1998), and he later served as principal deputy to Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum under President George W. Bush.

When Gorsuch was confirmed in April by a Senate vote of 54–45, he became the eighth Columbia graduate to reach the high court, joining John Jay 1764KC, Samuel Blatchford 1837CC, Benjamin Cardozo 1889CC, 1890GSAS, 1915HON, Charles Evans Hughes 1884LAW, 1907HON, Harlan Fiske Stone 1898LAW, William O. Douglas ’25LAW, ’79HON and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59LAW, ’94HON. As the court’s newest and youngest justice, Gorsuch swiftly asserted himself as the conservative voice that the Republican Senate had held out for when they stalled President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. And Gorsuch’s early opinions as a Supreme Court justice suggest that the conservatism he espoused at Columbia has been a consistent guiding philosophy.

 

After spending his early childhood in Denver and his high-school years in Maryland, where he attended North Bethesda’s Georgetown Prep (Waters was a classmate there), Gorsuch seemed to arrive on 116th Street with his worldview in place. “He was a bit more fully formed than other people, intellectually,” says Fed cofounder Dean Pride ’88CC, now a writer and copyeditor for Mishpacha magazine in Israel.

Gorsuch was also extremely driven. Though he entered with the Class of 1989, he piled on the courses and graduated in three years. “He did seem like a man in a hurry,” says Waters. “He was always rushing — physically, literally.” Sometimes he did so in cowboy boots.

“He was a smart cookie by the time he got to school,” recalls attorney Robert Laplaca ’89CC, one of his fraternity brothers at Phi Gamma Delta (“Fiji”). “I used to joke with him that he’d become president someday, just because of his demeanor, his likability, his intelligence, and his thinking on big issues.”

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