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What Neil Gorsuch Can Learn From His Grandfather

The Supreme Court nominee comes from a long line of lawyers, the most prominent of whom was a compassionate, empathetic leader.

March 20, 2017

A few months after the Denver law firm of Gorsuch & Kirgis opened its doors in July 1945 its receptionist became sick enough to be hospitalized. At the time, the firm’s sick-leave policy gave employees one day’s grace for each month they had worked, meaning the employee would have used up her leave after only three or four days out of the office. The firm’s senior partner, a renowned labor lawyer, thought this was unjust so he changed the firm’s policy to pay the woman’s salary for several months. He then initiated a company-wide health insurance program, rare at the time for law firms anywhere.

The partner’s name was John Elliott Gorsuch. Today his grandson, Neil, appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee for the Supreme Court. By now you surely are familiar with the story of Neil Gorsuch’s mother, the politically-connected and ever-contentious former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford. But virtually nothing has been written about the nominee’s father, who was himself a good lawyer, or the nominee’s grandfather, who was by all accounts an extraordinary attorney and an exceptional leader.

John Gorsuch died in 1987 just as Neil Gorsuch was launching his own brilliant legal career. John’s son, David, who is Neil Gorsuch’s father, died in 2001, a few years before Neil Gorsuch took a job in the administration of George W. Bush. Both the father and the grandfather were born in Denver. Both had long and successful careers in the law. Of the two, the man with the more remarkable life story surely is John, the grandfather. I know because when I first became a lawyer, and started practicing law, I worked for six years at the firm John Gorsuch had founded 50 years earlier.

When I joined the firm in 1990 as a summer clerk, David Gorsuch was a partner and John’s portrait hung on the wall. It was a great place to work—and the only job in the law I have ever had. In 1995, on the firm’s golden anniversary, shortly before I left the law to return to journalism, I was asked to write a history of the firm’s first 50 years. The details here come from interviews I conducted back then and from the recollections of Ben Aisenberg, a Colorado lawyer who was a partner with both John Gorsuch and David Gorsuch and who wrote an ode to the elder Gorsuch in 2004.

John Gorsuch was born in 1899 and served as a private in the Army during World War I. When he returned to Colorado he put himself through law school by driving a trolley car. He got his law degree from the University of Denver in 1925. In 1930, he married well. Neil Gorsuch’s grandmother was Freda Munz, a cattle rancher’s daughter. John and Freda had four children. One became a teacher. Another became a priest. Neil’s father, David, was an excellent skier and the nominee’s well-chronicled love for the outdoors can be traced directly to that and to his grandfather’s horse-pack trips deep into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming.

As a young attorney, John Gorsuch specialized in real estate. Later, after service on behalf of the War Labor Board during World War II, he became a prominent labor lawyer and then a labor arbitrator. He was by all accounts a gregarious, confident man, a great “teacher” of young associates, and a rare advocate who generated respect even among his professional adversaries. “Going to lunch with John on 17th Street was a tour de force because you couldn’t get 100 feet without encountering somebody he knew,” recalled William McGehee, who also was a partner of both David and John Gorsuch. “It was not a walk, it was a procession.”

You get the sense that life as a senior partner in a law firm in Denver in the 1950s and 1960s was a lot like a script from “Mad Men.” Here’s one old story about the nominee’s grandfather that isn’t likely to come up this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee: “John had an old blue Ford convertible,” recalled another partner, Fred Deering. “In the summertime, we could always ride home in the Ford convertible and we had some great times, I can remember several times on Friday night, we’d make a stop along the way [for martinis]. And then we would go sailing down the street with the top down in the convertible singing ‘Little Orphan Annie.’ John loved to sing.”

If anyone has said, “Neil Gorsuch loves to sing” I have not heard it. Much of the praise the nominee has received over the past month or so has centered on his courtly demeanor, his winning personality, and his ability to generate respect even among those whose judicial ideology he does not share. Fair enough. The nation’s elite clearly consider him a Gentleman. But what of the hundreds of millions of citizens whose lives will be shaped by the choices he will make as a justice? Where is their connection to a man who went from prep school to Columbia to Harvard to Oxford to a clerkship on the Supreme Court to the Bush administration to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals?

Of his grandfather it was said: “John was the most down-to-earth individual I’ve ever met. He was an everyman. He related to you at every level. He could be with a crowd of socialites and act on their level, or he could be with an associate or some client or something like that and be able to relate to them. He was extremely open-minded.” Of the nominee, half a century later, it is said: He is an “originalist” and an excellent writer who is connected to the darkly conservative billionaire Phillip Anschutz and who once cheered on Hans von Spakovsky.  

I have assumed through the decades that John Gorsuch was a typical Republican of his era, an Eisenhower Republican of the sort bypassed by the conservative (and now alt-right) orthodoxy of the modern party. His grandson’s public record, in the choice of friends he has made, the vote suppressors he has cheered, and the decisions on religion he has issued or endorsed suggests, however, that a very different kind of Gorsuch is about to become the newest Supreme Court justice. Indeed, if modern conservatives were to build a justice from scratch they would come up with something close to Neil Gorsuch.  

John Gorsuch brought a level of empathy and compassion to the law. His contemporaries seem clear about that. There is no reason today to believe his grandson will follow that lead. He is not his grandfather’s man, at least not now, at least not yet. Instead, on the eve of his confirmation hearing, we appear to have before us yet another lawyer and judge with impeccable credentials and an impressive pedigree who plans to use his considerable intellectual gift to continue to favor the favored and afflict the afflicted. It has been 30 years since John Gorsuch died. I wish the old man were around today to give counsel to his grandson. I would like to think he would remind him that there is and always should be a place on the Supreme Court for another tribune for the “everyman.”

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.