DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch told an Eighth Circuit conference on Friday that too much is attention is paid to 5-4 decisions of the court and not enough to how often the nine justices are in unanimous agreement.
“These are the hardest cases in the country,” Gorsuch told an audience of about 700 attorneys and judges, in a conversation with the Eighth Circuit’s Chief Judge Lavenski Smith.
The court hears only 60 to 70 cases a year, of 8,000 petitions, Gorsuch said. “These are the ones where you all have disagreed already. We don’t take cases that are easy, so you should expect some disagreement.”
Although “the focus is myopically on the handful of cases decided 5-to-4,” he said, the court is unanimous about 40 percent of the time. Five-to-four rulings have “been about 25 percent or 30 percent of the court’s docket for a very long period of time,” he said.
“Of course you do not agree on everything. That’s why there are nine of you, or 11 of you on the circuit court. The point isn’t to have group-think on everything, but just because you disagree doesn’t meant you have to be disagreeable.”
Gorsuch continued: “We shake hands every time we gather; we sing one another happy birthday; we have lunch together many times. We don’t talk shop at lunch. Jokes are welcomed. Justice Breyer seems to have a bottomless well of knock-knock jokes; his grandkids are his source, I guess. We have a Christmas party, decorate a Christmas tree; we sing songs together. The law clerks put on a show making fun of us, kind of a satire. It’s a collegial atmosphere.”
He said his typical workday begins with work in the morning at home over coffee. He rides his bike to work and starts reading briefs and writing opinions alone in his chambers, followed by a brown-bag lunch with clerks and staff. At the end of the day, “I bicycle home, throw something on the grill and play Bananagrams with my daughters.”
“It’s a contemplative life, reading briefs, working through problems, questioning assumptions and never taking anything for granted. Reading, reading, reading.”
When he enters the Supreme Court Building at One First Street, NE, in Washington, D.C., Gorsuch passes portraits of associate justices who preceded him, and he recalled a story of when he clerked for fellow Coloradan Justice Byron White.
As they walked past the portraits one day, White asked Gorsuch how many he could identify. Gorsuch said he could identify only about half. “‘Me too,’” White said, “‘and the same thing’s going to happen to me, too.’”
Gorsuch said White’s comment struck him as sad at the time but years later he realized White’s point was that “the judges in our system shouldn’t be much remembered; they should be forgot, because their job was to keep the rule of law, not to aggrandize themselves, not to become philosopher kings, not to run the country as they wish it were. That’s what he meant, I think, looking back. I remember that story as I walk out of that building every single day.”