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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At the same time, Gorsuch was in many ways a typical college student. He studied, dated, and hung out. In retrospect, some of his acquaintances wonder why he pledged Fiji, which had a reputation for partying. But his Fiji brother and Fed colleague Dave Vatti ’89CC, today a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, finds nothing unusual about his membership. “Neil liked being one of the guys and having fun, and that was what Fiji was all about.”

If not a loner, Gorsuch was also not quite a joiner; he did not live in the Fiji house at 538 West 114th Street. Classmates claim that he refused to be photographed with a beer in his hand, in case he ran for public office one day. As it was, he was disqualified from his 1986 bid for the University Senate because of inappropriate campaign-flyer placement. Spectator reported that the elections commission “found several of Gorsuch’s posters in East Campus elevators, more than two posters on several floors in various dorms, and posters taped to the glass portions of doors in dorms — all violations of election postering rules.” The candidate said he was unaware of the two-poster rule and that his supporters were responsible. (Laplaca recently fessed up: “I was the dummy who violated the sign-posting rules,” he wrote in a letter to Columbia College Today this past spring.)

“He was an unfailingly polite, gracious person,” says Pride. “In an argument, he could get sharp. He has a way with words. But in his personal dealings with people, I don’t think anyone would have said that he wasn’t a good guy.”

Elizabeth Pleshette ’89CC, a future College admissions officer and a neighbor on the twelfth floor of Carman Hall, agrees. She would frequently tussle with Gorsuch in the floor lounge over abortion and reproductive rights.

“We got into tremendously heated discussions, to the point that people would walk away in disgust — ‘Oh, it’s Neil and Liz again.’ I would get very emotional, and it would be very upsetting.” But Pleshette remembers another, more homespun aspect of her verbal sparring partner: “He sounded like Jimmy Stewart. We teased him about it. He was the quintessential ‘gee willikers’ kind of guy.”

“He was a smart cookie . . . I used to joke with him that he’d become president someday.” — Robert Laplaca ’89CC

In addition to his beliefs, ambition, and poise, Gorsuch came to campus with noteworthy family ties: his mother was Anne Gorsuch Burford, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Under President Reagan, she aroused liberal wrath for relaxing pollution rules, and for cutting budgets and employee rolls alike. When she declined to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the federal Superfund program, she became the first cabinet-level official to be cited for contempt of Congress. After twenty-two months, she resigned.

Her son’s friends and detractors are unanimous in saying that Gorsuch downplayed this background — not necessarily because he feared notoriety, but because he wanted to be known in his own right.

 

As a freshman, Gorsuch wrote for a short-lived journal of ideas called the Morningside Review (not to be confused with the current online journal of that name published by the undergraduate writing program). In one piece, titled “A Tory Defense,” he wrote, “Here on Morningside, conservatism is an undeniably fashionable whipping-boy for the world’s ills.” But along with his Morningside contributors Pride and Andrew Levy ’88CC, Gorsuch found the publication lacking. “It had no campus visibility,” says Levy, a senior producer at the HLN network and a former Fox News commentator. “It was sort of like shouting into the wind.” Pride remembers Morningside being wonky, infrequent, and too focused on national and global affairs: “It wasn’t quite a student publication,” he says. “We wanted something a bit more lively.”

So in October 1986, Gorsuch, Pride, Waters, and Levy started the Federalist Paper as a feisty and reliable response to campus liberals.

“We were wondering if someone could open a forum for debate — a real debate — that would keep some important issues in the Columbia College student’s mind,” Gorsuch told Columbia College Today at the time. “Maybe even provide him with a few different perspectives he hadn’t heard, but which do exist on campus. And we thought we could do it.”

“Neil was the straw that stirred the drink,” says Waters. “He founded that paper, and it was his paper. We had an editorial board, and he was not autocratic. But it would not have happened without Neil.”

Even the publication’s name was Gorsuch’s decision. Levy had waited to call it the Columbia Independent, but Gorsuch insisted otherwise. The moniker was, of course, an homage to the classic defenses of the Constitution written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Gorsuch’s Spec column was appropriately titled “Fed Up.”

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