WASHINGTON – Disagreeing without being disagreeable is the way many friends, bosses, co-workers, and former law clerks describe fourth-generation Coloradan and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Whether it’s Gorsuch pausing to ask a courthouse security guard about his family, or letting a former law clerk’s 3-year-old son ride one of his horses, Gorsuch is “not shy about inviting people into his world,” said former law clerk Jason Murray.
The affable judge values getting along with others, regardless of political views.
“He genuinely likes people, and they like him. It’s not just a show that he puts on of being a nice guy,” said Mark Champoux, who clerked for Gorsuch in 2007-2008.
Gorsuch’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is to be taken up Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Born in Denver in 1967, Gorsuch moved to Washington, D.C., with his mother as a teen, and after attending college and law school, he was back in the nation’s capital working at a law firm and then as deputy associate attorney general at the Department of Justice.
He returned to Colorado in 2006 after being appointed as a judge to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gorsuch, 49, lives in Boulder with his wife and two daughters, and his expansive property is filled with horses, goats and chickens, and includes an orchard. An outdoors enthusiast, he enjoys skiing, fly fishing and hiking.
Regardless of where he’s lived, people who have worked with or alongside him lauded his warm personality, which many attributed to his Western roots.
While Gorsuch clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Byron White and Justice Anthony Kennedy, other Supreme Court clerks with whom he rarely interacted got the impression that Gorsuch was a nice person.
“Neil is obviously very smart and very well-credentialed, but also, he’s just a very nice guy. He’s a gentlemanly and cordial fellow,” said Eugene Volokh, who clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at the same time and is now a professor at the UCLA Law School.
Before Gorsuch sat on the bench, he was an associate and partner at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel in Washington, D.C.
“He’s got that nice, affable Western demeanor and great interpersonal skills. He made a lot of friends wherever he went, including at the firm,” said Mark Hansen, Gorsuch’s former boss at the firm.
During his time as a trial attorney, Gorsuch’s personality was able to shine through.
“Trial lawyers tend to have a bit of personality, and they’re witty, and they’re funny. And you can definitely see that in Judge Gorsuch,” said Theresa Wardon, who clerked for Gorsuch from 2008 to 2009.
Gorsuch also is credited with being a driving force behind the cooperative environment among the judges in the 10th Circuit.
“He values collegiality very highly. The 10th Circuit is much more unified and collegial than a lot of other circuit courts around the country. Even when you have cases where the judges disagree, they generally manage to have good relationships, and those relationships persist despite those disagreements,” said Murray, who clerked for the judge in 2011 and 2012.
Even though Gorsuch identifies as a Republican, supporters say he doesn’t choose his law clerks or make legal judgments based on party loyalties.
“For him, judging isn’t based on personal beliefs or politics. I think that’s kind of refreshing these days,” said Wardon, who is a Democrat.
A letter sent by more than 200 Colorado attorneys from across the political spectrum to U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado said, “We know Judge Gorsuch to be a person of utmost character. He is fair, decent, and honest, both as a judge and a person.”
Gorsuch friendliness extends to those he mentors.
“I felt like he took a lot of time to get to know his law clerks and to interact with them outside of chambers as well as inside of chambers. He would like to chat with us and hear what was going on in our lives,” said Katherine Yarger, who clerked for Gorsuch in 2009-10.
And for Gorsuch, that mentorship continues.
“He has continued to provide advice even beyond my Supreme Court clerkship about different decisions about where to work and what type of opportunities to pursue,” said Yarger, who clerked for Justice Elena Kagan after clerking for Gorsuch.
“You get this lifelong mentor. Because he’s so young, I will probably get the privilege of his guidance and mentorship for most of my career,” Wardon said.
Gorsuch also teaches at the University of Colorado Law School, and after he was named as a front-runner for the Supreme Court nomination, security concerns arose on campus.
“Journalists were roaming our building asking students to report his whereabouts in real time. I was struck that his first and overriding concern was for the welfare of students,” said Erik Gerding, associate dean for academic affairs at the CU Law School.
Gorsuch, like many judges, takes his clerks to both formal and informal lunches. His informal lunches tend to be at places like Qdoba, where he blends in.
“He is the kind of guy, that if you were to meet him on the street, you wouldn’t know that he’s a fancy federal judge. He has a really down-to-earth persona about him,” said Murray.
Gorsuch’s unassuming personality may come from his love of the outdoors, which he shares with law clerks on hiking, fly fishing and jogging outings.
“He’s competitive, but in a fun way. He likes to go running with his clerks. We did the Bolder Boulder run all together one year, and it was just for fun, but he wanted to beat us,” Champoux said.
Once a year, he invites current and former clerks on a ski trip with Judge Timothy Tymkovitch, also on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and his law clerks.
“He made it a point to ski with folks of all different levels, even though he himself is a very expert skier,” Yarger said.
During the summer, he invites clerks to summer barbecues at his animal-filled house.
One summer, Gorsuch let Yarger’s 3-year-old son, Jack, ride a pony and pick an egg out of Gorsuch’s chicken coop. “He seemed to take genuine pleasure in the fact that these were new experiences for Jack,” Yarger said.
Gorsuch’s love of the outdoors and Colorado would be a benefit to the Supreme Court, supporters say. “There are all kinds of issues that Western states face day to day that people on the coasts just don’t ever think about,” Champoux said.
And former boss Hansen said, “He’s a good guy. In a world full of ambitious and high-achieving people, Neil had terrific integrity and values.”
Shira Stein is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and a reporting intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @stein_shira.