WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump announced U.S. Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch on Tuesday night as his choice to fill the vacant ninth seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, setting up a showdown with Senate Democrats who have already promised to oppose the nominee.
Gorsuch, 49, has served on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals since 2006, after being appointed by President George W. Bush. The Denver native is a Washington veteran with an originalist legal philosophy similar to that of late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he will replace on the bench if confirmed.
"I took the task of this nomination very seriously, I have selected an individual whose qualities define, really and I mean closely define, what we are looking for," Trump said in announcing the appointment from the east room of the White House on Tuesday night. "Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous discipline and has earned bipartisan support."
Gorsuch attended Harvard Law School at the same time as former President Barack Obama, and also holds degrees from Columbia University and Oxford University. Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, whom Gorsuch reportedly beat out for the job, would have been the only justice on the Supreme Court without a degree from an Ivy League law school.
Trump said he read through Gorsuch's legal opinions in making the decision and that he was particularly impressed by his educational history. He also noted sarcastically that Gorsuch received a unanimous confirmation when he was appointed to the 10th Circuit, a notable difference from what likely faces him when he goes to the Senate shortly.
Court-watchers see Gorsuch as cut from the same cloth as Scalia, a conservative legal icon whose death this past February set off a fierce Senate battle over the Supreme Court. Republicans held strong with a blockade against Obama's pick to fill the job, Merrick Garland, chief judge of the D.C. Circuit.
"I would say he is a strong originalist, meaning that he focuses on the original meaning of the Constitution, which makes him sort of similar to Scalia," Paul Schiff Berman, a professor at George Washington University Law, said in an interview before the announcement.
In a speech accepting Trump's nomination, Gorsuch said he missed Scalia, calling him "a lion of the law."
But when he was asked about his philosophy during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006, Gorsuch said he tried not to define himself too narrowly.
"If I were confirmed, senator, I resist pigeonholes," Gorsuch said, according to a transcript. "I think those are not terribly helpful, pigeonholing someone as having this philosophy or that philosophy. They often surprise you. People do unexpected things and pigeon holes ignore gray areas in the law, of which there are a great many."
In his speech Tuesday, Gorsuch said he would interpret the law as written without taking into account his personal opinions and beliefs.
"A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge," Gorsuch said, to laughs.
On the bench, Gorsuch has ruled on a number of notable cases, including writing a concurring opinion that held the federal health care law's contraceptive mandate violated the religious beliefs of Hobby Lobby Stores' owners.
Republicans immediately praised Trump's choice on Tuesday night.
"Judge Gorsuch understands the invaluable contribution to the federal judiciary and our democratic government made by the justice he is succeeding," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "Like Justice Scalia, he understands the constitutional limits on the authority of a federal judge and that the duty of a judge is to apply the law evenhandedly, without fear or favor, and not to rule based on one's empathy with a party in a case."
How Gorsuch would impact the court if confirmed is up for debate. Though Scalia has been a favorite of conservatives for a long time, judicial philosophy does not always match up perfectly with political partisanship – meaning replacing him with someone with a similar mind will not move the court far to the right in every instance.
"At least on many of the hot-button political issues that people focus a lot of attention, I would not expect this appointment to radically shift the balance of the court, because really Justice Kennedy still holds the swing vote in many of those cases," Berman said.
Some Democrats, still stinging from the Republicans' successful opposition to Garland, have said they will oppose any nominee Trump puts forward and threatened to filibuster anyone who is not Garland.
If 41 Democrats band together against Gorsuch, Republicans could be forced to change Senate rules to prevent the filibuster of Supreme Court nominees, something Democrats did with other appointments during the Obama administration.
Trump's choice of Gorsuch did not seem to soften their stance much.
"I had hoped that President Trump would work in a bipartisan way to pick a mainstream nominee like Merrick Garland and bring the country together," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "Instead, he outsourced this process to far-right interest groups. This is no way to treat a co-equal branch of government or to protect the independence of our federal judiciary."
Leahy added later in the statement that he questions "whether Judge Gorsuch meets the high standard set by Merrick Garland," and wondered if he could be independent from Trump.