In private practice, Neil Gorsuch once spent eight hours deposing a representative of an accounting firm who answered all Gorsuch’s questions with “I don’t know,” even though the witness — as a designated representative of the company — was supposed to know, recalled one of his colleagues.
Using those “I don’t knows” as evidence, Gorsuch later won a ruling in Virginia state court barring the company from presenting most of its arguments in the civil case, which was a dispute over a hotel deal in which Gorsuch represented Sir Bernard Ashley, co-founder of the fashion and home furnishings company Laura Ashley.
That’s according to his old colleague Mark C. Hansen, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm where Gorsuch worked from 1995 to 2005: Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel.
Kellogg Huber Hansen, with a single office in Washington, D.C. and around 80 lawyers, is a trial and appellate firm that represents both plaintiffs and defendants. It’s where Gorsuch chose to spend 10 years — the entirety of his career in private practice — after clerkships with David B. Sentelle on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Byron R. White and Anthony M. Kennedy.
Gorsuch was a “very skilled attorney,” said Hansen, who recruited Gorsuch to the firm and worked with him closely throughout his time there.
“He loved the practice of law,” Hansen said of Gorsuch, who made partner in two years. “He was very practical, not just an ivory tower, lofty intellectual. He was good at learning the facts, good at dealing with clients and adversaries — an all around fine lawyer.”
That’s the consensus from a variety of attorneys who have known or worked with or against Gorsuch, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, during his career. Although progressives might disagree with certain outcomes in cases before the conservative-leaning judge (and many have and do, pointing to, for example, his ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius in a case about contraceptive coverage), they can rest assured that he does his best to keep his personal views off the bench, these attorneys said. The judge was described as fair minded and ethical in several interviews.
Donald R. Morin, of Morin & Barkley in Charlottesville, opposed Gorsuch in the 1997 Ashley case, which was resolved in a confidential settlement on the first day of trial. He said Gorsuch’s work was “of the highest legal and ethical quality.”
“He made it extremely tough for the defense, and his ethics were unquestionable,” Morin said. “If he told you something, you definitely could believe it.”
At Kellogg Huber Hansen, Gorsuch had a “very diverse practice,” Hansen said. The judge’s only other experience at law firms, according to a detailed biography included in a transcript of his 2006 Tenth Circuit confirmation hearings, were summer associate positions at Sullivan & Cromwell; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Davis Graham & Stubbs in Denver.
At Kellogg Huber Hansen, Gorsuch handled everything from breach of contract disputes to large antitrust cases. With Hansen, he was on a team that won $1.05 billion in damages in a Sherman Act case in which two tobacco manufacturers faced off against each other. In another trial in which Gorsuch represented a small gravel pit owner against a large construction company, Hansen remembered that Gorsuch had a simple — and ultimately successful — closing argument for the jury.
“He walked up to the jury rail and said, ‘this is not a complicated case,’” Hansen remembered. “Then he said, ‘this is what the defendant did to my client’ and turned his pockets inside out.”
Christian E. Mammen, a partner at Hogan Lovells in San Francisco who studied with Gorsuch at Oxford in the early 2000s and described himself as “a progressive Democrat… about as blue as you can get,” said he was “delighted that such a brilliant and humble man” had been nominated to the Supreme Court.
“He’s somebody who can bring that kind of reasoned, measured, calm discussion to substantive, important issues,” he said. “I think he has the right temperament to be on the Supreme Court, especially given the highly charged atmosphere we’ve got right now in American politics.”
When they were at Oxford, Mammen offered feedback on Gorsuch’s dissertation (and was acknowledged as having done so in the resulting book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia).
“There are policy issues he and I disagree on, but he is somebody I know I could sit down with or, if I was arguing a case in front of him, get a fair hearing on the quality of the arguments,” Mammen said.
Jason C. Murray, a Denver-based partner at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott who clerked for Gorsuch from 2011 to 2012 at the 10th Circuit before going on to the chambers of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, agreed.
“I think liberals are going to find some of the outcomes of his cases to be things they disagree with, but I think that’s going to be true for any conservative judge,” said Murray, who described himself as “fairly liberal.” “What I would say about Judge Gorsuch is that you know he’s not reaching those decisions because of his politics.”
Adam H. Charnes, a partner at Kilpatrick Towsend & Stockton in Dallas, went to Harvard Law School with Gorsuch and, like him, served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Kennedy and in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush. He said Gorsuch is very much in line with the late Antonin Scalia, whose seat he would fill if confirmed.
Murray said one would be hard-pressed to make a successful case against Gorsuch’s nomination.
Indeed, despite the controversy today over his possible appointment to the Supreme Court — much of it stemming from Democrats’ residual anger over Republican’s failure to even hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee — his appointment to the Tenth Circuit was entirely uncontroversial. That 2006 vote was unanimously in his favor.
“One of the really striking things about Judge Gorsuch is that no matter how many people you talk to, no one who knows him and knows his work — from the most liberal academics and judges to the most conservative — has anything bad to say about his qualifications, his integrity, or his decency as a person,” Murray said.