RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch faced more than 11 hours of questioning yesterday. And although Democrats tried to push him to say how he'd rule on specific issues, Gorsuch said doing so would put a cloud over his impartiality if he's confirmed to the court.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)
NEIL GORSUCH: I have offered no promises on how I'd rule in any case to anyone. And I don't think it's appropriate for a judge to do so, no matter who's doing the asking. And I don't because everybody wants a fair judge to come to their case with an open mind and decide it on the facts and the law. One of the facts and one of the features of law that you have to decide it on is on the basis of precedent, as you point out. And for a judge, precedent is a very important thing.
MARTIN: Senator Chris Coons was one of the lawmakers who got to put his own questions to Judge Gorsuch. He's a Democrat who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And he is in our studios this morning. Thanks for coming in, Senator.
CHRIS COONS: Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: How do you think Judge Gorsuch did yesterday?
COONS: Well, he held up impressively under 11 hours of questioning. He's certainly a charming and engaging, intelligent and skilled judge. In his decade on the 10th Circuit, he's participated in 2,700 decisions.
And I focused my questions yesterday on two different areas - Hobby Lobby, which was a groundbreaking case that for the first time recognized the idea what I think is the unprecedented concept that a large for-profit corporation can have religious free exercise rights and that those religious free exercise rights can overrule the privacy interests, the autonomy interests of thousands of employees and bar their access to contraceptive choices.
MARTIN: But were you hoping to get a concrete answer on that? I mean, as...
COONS: I was hoping, Rachel, to better understand how he came to these conclusions and whether he appreciated how unprecedented that decision was and whether he was able to articulate and defend how he reached those conclusions. I also asked him about a lengthy book that he wrote on assisted suicide just over 10 years ago, where he emphasized the inviolability of human life.
Both of these I think are pretty important principles that he has reached out and made precedent shattering or precedent-setting decisions - or indicated an intention to - and that he's taken certain stances when he worked for the Bush Justice Department and in that book on assisted suicide that are pretty strong indicators of what I think many of his core values may be.
MARTIN: He's a conservative. I mean, I think he - no one would deny that. He's been nominated by a Republican president. It's worth pointing out though that even people who are left-leaning say this is a guy with integrity, that this is a guy who's not a partisan. Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general under President Obama, said as much.
So when you look at all that, under a Republican president is this as good as you're going to get as a Democrat?
COONS: Well, Rachel, he certainly is a charming conservative, what I'd call a smiling Scalia. He comes across well. He's engaging. I think it's important to look past the personality and to really understand his framework and his approach to decision making. Because if confirmed, he will likely be a justice for 25 or 30 years.
MARTIN: Are you there yet? Can you support him?
COONS: I'm not there yet. I've got two more days of hearings and then a week for us to sort of process the whole thing. I've heard the same, as you mentioned. A number of practitioners who are my friends or classmates who've either appeared in front of him or litigated with or against him say he's engaging, has great integrity, has an open mind. He is an impressive judge. But I have real concerns about just how conservative he actually is.
MARTIN: The first day of this confirmation hearing happened to coincide with an extraordinary announcement by the FBI that they're investigating possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia. Has that put a greater emphasis in the hearing on whether or not Gorsuch can stand independent to this president?
COONS: I think it makes it more important than ever that we have clarity, both about how he came to be nominated, whether he is actually going to stand up for an independent judiciary, his views on the separation of powers. And a number of senators have dedicated their questioning to focusing on that.
MARTIN: Are you convinced that the congressional investigations and the FBI's investigation will be conclusive? I mean, when do you stop looking for the fire amid all the smoke?
COONS: Well, there is a lot of smoke. And the smoke continues. There were just some more alarming allegations about Paul Manafort, who was President Trump's campaign manager, that he laundered I think it was $12 million in funds from Yanukovych, who was the former strongman of Ukraine, very close to Putin. There continues to be a fair amount of smoke.
What I think is encouraging about the news delivered by FBI Director Comey is that it's clear that there is an investigation moving forward. To the best of my knowledge, the Senate Intelligence Committee continues to cooperate and continues to get access to raw intelligence. So I think we need to let these investigations move forward.
MARTIN: For how long? I mean, at some point don't you need to just say here's your timeframe, be done?
COONS: I think they've been working for at most a few weeks, the FBI investigation since late last summer. I thought it was striking that the FBI director is now saying that there's an ongoing investigation involving Trump and he didn't feel compelled to say that when it might have made some big difference in the campaign. He did indicate there was some ongoing investigation into emails related to Secretary Clinton but did not indicate anything to suggest there was an investigation involving then-candidate Trump, despite there being lots of concerning signals as early as last summer that there had in fact been Russian efforts to intrude into our electoral system.
This, Rachel, is not just about the last election though, it's about the next election. And it's about what we're going to do together to defend our democracy.
MARTIN: Delaware Senator Chris Coons, thanks so much for coming in this morning.
COONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.