WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch discussed the importance of civility and civics education in a speech Thursday at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, an address criticized by liberal groups who said his decision to speak there raised questions about his independence from the president who nominated him.
Gorsuch’s speech, one of his first since joining the court in April, came just a few days before the Supreme Court’s begins its new term Monday. Liberal groups including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America briefly protested outside and wrote in a letter that Gorsuch’s appearance at President Donald Trump’s hotel undermines the court’s “public legitimacy as an entity above partisan politics.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., aso criticized Gorsuch’s appearance in a statement, saying, “There’s a reason we questioned his independence during his confirmation hearings.”
Gorsuch didn’t address the criticism during a 20-minute speech, focusing instead on civics and civility.
“We have to learn not only to tolerate different points of view but to cherish the din of democracy. It’s a hard lesson and no one’s perfect. We all make mistakes. But encouraging habits of civility in our next generation has to go hand in hand with the teaching of civics,” Gorsuch said.
The event was for The Fund for American Studies, an organization that offers programs for students on the “principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership.”
Gorsuch was introduced by Mary Elizabeth Taylor, a White House official who helped with Gorsuch’s nomination and a former participant in the fund’s programs. It’s one of several events where Gorsuch has appeared or will appear with people connected to his nomination.
Last week, he appeared in Kentucky with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican blocked President Barack Obama from filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, paving the way for Gorsuch’s eventual nomination. In November, Gorsuch is scheduled to speak at a dinner hosted by The Federalist Society, a conservative group that helped produce a list of potential Supreme Court nominees for Trump.
The Fund For American Studies said in a statement that the Trump hotel was chosen for its “location, size, availability and amenities.” There were “absolutely not political motivations in choosing the venue,” the organization said, adding that Gorsuch didn’t play any role in selecting the venue and that the contract with the hotel was signed before he was nominated to the court.
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, an ethics expert, wrote in an email that in “these highly divisive political times, a healthy respect for public confidence in the Court” should have led Gorsuch to decline the invitation to speak.
“Many Trump Administration decisions are likely soon to reach the Court’s docket,” Gillers wrote, and noted that Gorsuch accepted the invitation to speak when the justices had been scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case involving the president’s travel ban.
That case, originally scheduled for October, was taken off the calendar after a new version of the ban was put into effect over the weekend.
The hotel itself, just down the street from the White House, is also cited in several lawsuits arguing that Trump is violating the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause, a ban on foreign gifts and payments. Trump and the Justice Department have called those claims baseless. In an effort to distance himself from his real estate empire, Trump put his properties and other business entities in a trust overseen by one of his adult sons and a senior Trump Organization executive.
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