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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The Federalist Paper (which still publishes as the Federalist, but with an emphasis on satire) was far from an ideological monolith. There were pro-and-con forums; one early column objected to then Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s “extremist tendencies.” Much of the subject matter was strictly parochial. A piece in the October 26, 1987, issue questioned whether students were getting enough study time before final exams. Another scrutinized wide grading disparities among professors of the four basic Core courses.

The staff, too, was a mixed bag. Pride was a New Deal liberal, Levy a libertarian who embraced the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, and Gorsuch a devotee of Edmund Burke, with his faith in traditional, established institutions. Fed editorial meetings, Columbia College Today reported, often yielded “red-faced debate.”

“If we tried to reach editorial consensus on every piece we published, we’d never publish,” Gorsuch said in the article. “It’s a tough staff to keep together because there are very deep divisions, very strongly felt ones.” The future justice told D. Keith Mano ’63CC in National Review in 1987, “[The] reason why we can be so diverse is that there is so much room to the right. It’s not a matter of having to be a conservative to be identified with the right, it’s a matter of being a thinking man or woman.”

“In an argument, he could get sharp. He has a way with words.” — Dean Pride ’88CC

The Fed often aligned itself with mainstream Republican Party policies — anti-Soviet, anti-Sandinista. Much of its more outrageous commentary emanated from the fictitious and semi-satirical “Pierre du Pont Copeland,” a collaboratively constructed character described by Waters as “a very arrogant, wealthy” General Studies student — a sort of comic embodiment of the left’s worst nightmares. “I believe in the trickle-down theory: the servants’ bathrooms are directly below mine” was a typical Pierre pronouncement. “A person in jail for tax evasion (theft evasion) is as much a political prisoner as Nelson Mandela” was another.

At one point, Pierre joshed about how he and his cousins raised geese, tagged them with “the names of our favourite [sic] bleeding hearts,” and then hunted them on the Delmarva Peninsula. Among their kills were “Biden” and “Cuomo.” Pierre added, “We always make sure to have at least two or three corpulent ones, which we nickname ‘Teddy’ or ‘Tip.’”

But as Waters remembers it, Gorsuch objected to cheap shots and tried to keep them out of the Fed — not always successfully. “We’d gang up on him and he’d say, ‘OK, OK, OK.’ But he did not like it at all.” Indeed, says Levy, “On his deathbed, Neil would not say that publishing Pierre was one of the highlights of his life.”

For all their acerbity, Gorsuch and his Fed cohort eschewed the incendiary tone of the Dartmouth Review, the lodestar of the then-budding student conservative press movement and a hothouse for such right-wing firebrands as Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham. “Other than wanting to be as widely read as the Dartmouth Review on their campus,” Levy says, “I don’t remember us wanting to emulate them.”

Many of Gorsuch’s most keenly felt opinions found expression not in the Fed but in Spectator. Nor were they all politically charged. In February 1988 he pleaded for greater resources for the College, because it was “overcrowded, overburdened, and ever more subservient to the University’s graduate programs and Vice Presidents.” The following month, he urged that Student Council candidates address such pressing matters as the inadequacy of the college library in Butler, the need for a good book co-op, and the College’s “dismal support for its athletes.” With proper attention, Gorsuch argued, Columbia could become “a first-choice school.”

Gorsuch seemed to enjoy being provocative. In an April 1986 column he mocked a South Africa–type shanty that had gone up on Low Plaza as a “pre-fabricated, simple and fashionable” knockoff of Dartmouth’s more authentic “crickety and battered” counterpart. He called the divestment movement “unquestionably an honorable one.” But given that the Trustees had voted to divest the summer before, Gorsuch suggested, the structure had been erected “solely for media coverage.”

“He had very strong views that he expressed well,” says Andrea Miller ’89CC, now president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health in New York. As an editorial-page editor at Spectator, Miller says she felt an obligation to publish the full range of student opinions, but she recalls a “tenor of dismissiveness” in Gorsuch’s writing.

“If you read his stuff, you can see that he would very rarely engage the content of the argument someone was making,” says Tom Kamber ’89CC, who is executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, which connects senior citizens to the digital age. “Invariably he was questioning motives.”

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