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When it comes to the Supreme Court, we should 'proceed with deliberate purpose'

Unless hell freezes over, the name Gorsuch will soon grace more than street signs near Baltimore City College. A man named Neil Gorsuch will be the next person elevated to one of the most lofty positions in the land, that of justice of the United States Supreme Court.

As Republican leaders in Congress vow that Mr. Gorsuch will be confirmed "one way or another," we are witnessing a process in the U.S. Senate that is anything but noble. It is politics most raw, the kind that equally confounds and repulses those with weak stomachs or little experience with governance as reality TV.

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Of course, the man being made supreme is a veritable unknown outside the most elite legal and political circles. In him, we must place our trust — potentially for decades to come.

On all levels, one wonders whether there is not a better way. But it is what it is.

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More often than not the men and women of the Supreme Court seem to figure out what decision is best at the time. But there have been some doozies in the past that should make us reluctant to assume that will always be the case. We have not fully overcome the thinking behind the now infamous 19th century ruling that said that blacks had no rights that whites needed to respect. Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Marylander, wrote that opinion. Efforts to remove statues of him — in Baltimore, in Frederick, in Annapolis — won't do much to address that lingering strand of thought.

For some years after the modern civil rights movement gained momentum, federal courts, including the Supreme Court, were reliable allies — from outlawing state-supported segregation in public education to protecting the rights of protesters. But the Supreme Court has taken a path that diverges from a primary concern of those who care about civil rights: unimpeded access to the ballot box.

Mr. Gorsuch might surprise us — after all, some justices have surprised their appointing presidents with on-the-bench conversions — but I do not see him rushing to undo the damage caused by the Shelby v. Holder decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

A Justice Neil Gorsuch will join other lifers like ultra conservative Clarence Thomas, who was a relative youngster when George H. W. Bush appointed him to replace the retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall over the objections of liberals in general and blacks and women in particular. At 68, he has been on the court more than a quarter century and could be with us for a couple more decades.

The oldest justice currently is one of my former law professors, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 84. If she leaves the court during the Trump presidency, her replacement undoubtedly will be just as much an affront as was Marshall's.

From what is knowable about Mr. Gorsuch, he is intelligent, has an impeccable educational background and has the kind of legal record that the profession lauds. When given the choice, he sides with power over ordinary people. During the confirmation process, Democratic senators have hammered him about a ruling in which he upheld the firing of a truck driver who chose to live rather than freeze to death when the brakes on his trailer failed. The driver unhitched the trailer and left it behind as he drove the truck to safety. His employer fired him. Mr. Gorsuch was the lone dissenter when his fellow judges of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado ruled in the driver's favor. "It might be fair to ask whether [the trucking company's] decision was a wise or kind one. But it's not our job to answer questions like that."

It is our job to ask whether we want a judge so cold-hearted, and that is one reason Democrats have seized on the truck driver's story. It's just about their only opening, since Mr. Gorsuch has refused to answer questions about any issue that might possibly come before him as a sitting justice.

Like local governing bodies about which so many Baltimoreans seem to delight in being ignorant — as if that state of unknowing protects their virtue — the Supreme Court is an institution we cannot afford to ignore. Its rulings affect every aspect of our lives; its justices shape our nation well beyond their lifetimes.

The next time you go to the polls, think about how the person you vote for — a governor, a member of Congress, a president — can set into motion who one day serves on the Supreme Court. Then proceed with deliberate purpose.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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