April 17, 2017 / 10:02 AM / 4 months ago

Trump appointee Gorsuch energetic in first U.S. high court arguments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's appointee Neil Gorsuch on Monday showed himself to be a frequent and energetic questioner during U.S. Supreme Court arguments in his first day hearing cases as a justice, at one point even apologising for talking too much.

Gorsuch, whose confirmation to the lifetime job restored the court's conservative majority, exhibited composure and confidence, sitting on the far right of the bench in the ornate courtroom, alongside liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He appeared relaxed, gingerly sipping from a disposable coffee cup.

The justices, with the exception of the usually silent Clarence Thomas, are known for their aggressive questioning, and Gorsuch showed no qualms about jumping right in. Eight times during the course of three one-hour arguments Gorsuch peppered attorneys with a series of pointed questions.

The court had its full complement of nine justices, five conservatives and four liberals, for arguments for the first time since Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February 2016.

Gorsuch formally joined the Supreme Court on April 10 after being confirmed three days earlier by the Republican-led Senate over broad Democratic opposition.

The Coloradoan came across as temperamentally different from the sometimes hard-edged New Yorker Scalia, offering respectful but firm questioning even when the lawyer facing his queries seemed evasive.

"I'm sorry for interrupting, counsellor," Gorsuch told one of the lawyers in the second case, a property dispute from New York state. "If you would just answer my question, I would be grateful."

In the first case, an employment dispute, Gorsuch grilled lawyer Christopher Landau, who represented a man claiming he was discriminated against by the U.S. Census Bureau, over the fine points of a law governing civil service employees.

"I'm sorry for taking up so much time, I apologise," Gorsuch said after his first lengthy exchange, sitting back in his high-backed chair and smiling.

'OUR COMMON CALLING'

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during the third day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. on March 22, 2017.Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Chief Justice John Roberts welcomed Gorsuch to the court before oral arguments began. "Justice Gorsuch, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling," Roberts said.

Gorsuch responded by thanking his new colleagues for their "warm welcome."

Gorsuch asked a string of questions about complicated federal law. As he indicated during his Senate confirmation hearing last month, his line of inquiry focussed on the text of a statute, an approach also embraced by Scalia and other conservative jurists.

"Wouldn't it be a lot easier if we followed the plain text of the statute? What am I missing?" Gorsuch asked government lawyer Brian Fletcher in the employment case.

When Fletcher responded that he could give reasons for his interpretation, Gorsuch appeared unsatisfied. "Not reasons. Where in the language?" he asked, referring to the statute.

The second case involved whether a developer can intervene in a lawsuit brought by a property owner against the town of Chester, New York over its refusal to give him permission to build on his land.

One of the lawyers in the case, Neal Katyal, was a familiar face to Gorsuch, having heartily endorsed his nomination, even testifying at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general in Democratic former President Barack Obama's Justice Department, represented the town.

Gorsuch sparred with a lawyer for a developer hoping to build on the land but did not directly engage with Katyal.

The third case involved a dispute over whether certain securities class-action lawsuits can be barred because they were filed too late.

Gorsuch, who at 49 could remain on the court for decades, served for a decade on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before Trump nominated him in January. Trump was able to fill Scalia's vacancy only because Senate Republicans last year refused to consider Obama's nominee Merrick Garland.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

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