WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch urged fellow conservatives Thursday to “cherish the din of democracy” by tolerating other viewpoints in a speech delivered at the ornate hotel owned by the president who nominated him.
Gorsuch’s willingness to speak at Trump International Hotel sparked objections from some ethics experts but support from others, reflecting the diversity of opinion he said should be celebrated. Outside, a smattering of liberal demonstrators voiced displeasure with his appearance.
The address to The Fund for American Studies, a nonprofit educational organization that teaches “the principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership,” came a week after the newest justice spoke at a center named after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell at the University of Louisville.
Gorsuch, 50, a veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, owes his lifetime appointment to President Trump, who nominated him in January, and McConnell, who blocked President Barack Obama from filling the seat throughout 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
His 20-minute talk was not nearly as controversial as the debate surrounding it. Gorsuch spoke about “civics and civility,” recalling the 110 rules of civility handwritten by George Washington in an effort to improve his behavior.
“To preserve our civil liberties, we have to constantly work on being civil to one another,” Gorsuch said.
Nevertheless, his decision to speak at the Trump and McConnell locales, rather than declining the invitations or seeking other venues, “has offended the conflict-of-interest sensibilities of legal ethicists at several levels — and rightly so,” Gabe Roth, executive director of the watchdog group Fix the Court, wrote in a USA TODAY column Thursday.
Not so, said Ed Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, who attended the speech. He noted the sponsoring group booked the location before Election Day and asked, “Is a justice supposed to accept or deny an invitation based on the hotel the event takes place in?”
While Trump has ceded management of the Trump Organization to his elder sons during his presidency, he has not relinquished his stake in its properties and profits from whoever rents its rooms or conference spaces. Watchdog groups have charged that violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which blocks payments to federal officials from foreign governments, because Trump stands to profit from the hotel’s success.
“Justice Gorsuch speaking to a conservative group in the Trump Hotel, where the president continues to hold a financial stake, is everything that was wrong with his nomination,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said. “There’s a reason we questioned his independence during his confirmation hearings.”
Trump’s immigration travel ban targeting mostly majority-Muslim countries remains pending before the Supreme Court. While recent changes to the ban make it likely the case will be declared moot, Gorsuch ruled in Trump’s favor over the summer on several interim orders concerning which travelers and refugees were covered.
Trump’s Justice Department also has taken positions on most of the other major cases being heard by the court this fall, including those involving gay rights, voting rights, workers’ rights and privacy rights.
Gorsuch plans to be the keynote speaker in November at the conservative Federalist Society’s annual gala, which has hosted conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in the past. The group was instrumental in composing the list of 21 potential Supreme Court nominees from which Trump chose Gorsuch.