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Gorsuch Hearings Mostly For Show

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Neil Gorsuch, nominee for Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, and President Donald Trump, via the official White House YouTube page.

President Trump's nominee to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court has faced questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Judge Neil Gorsuch has been asked about his view of the Constitution, legal precedent set forth in Roe v. Wade, and whether the president would be violating the law if he authorized torture for terrorists.

The nominee has declined to give many answers, saying he might have to rule on such matters in future cases. That has many questioning the purpose of the committee hearings.

On this politics day edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at University of Iowa and Scott Peters, associate professor of political science at University of Northern Iowa, about the hearings and their purpose.

"It's mainly for show, and as much as we would like to have answers, we aren't supposed to," says Hagle. However, he says the hearings do have meaning since senators on both sides of the political aisle use them to highlight accomplishments of the nominee, poke holes in legal arguments, or point out cases that might be embarrassing.

Declining to answer questions about legal reasoning or precedent goes back to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She declined to answer questions for the same reasons cited by Gorsuch. Being a close-mouthed nominee is both judicially and politically prudent.

Peters says early nominations to the Supreme Court were often patronage appointments for political allies. But, since the 1970s, presidents have been taking the nominations more seriously.

"The Reagan administration was paying more attention to ideology. By the time we get to Clinton, the presidents are getting much better at more accurately putting people on the bench that are more likely to reflect their policies and politics."

As far as what we know about Judge Gorsuch's political leanings, Peters says analysis of his rulings on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals shows that he probably falls somewhere right of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death created the vacancy he would fill.

"There would be individual cases where their views might differ, but in the long run, the overall patterns would wind up quite similar," says Peters.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk