Sen. Angus King wanted to hear what his constituents felt about the nomination of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, so he arranged a “listening session” Sunday evening on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine.
The former governor of Maine got an earful about Gorsuch – and the man who nominated him, President Trump.
Fifty-seven people spoke during the session, which was scheduled to last two hours. But King agreed to stay for a second session after it became obvious that two hours was just not enough time. King said 77 people in total offered their opinions over the course of four hours, and that more than 600 people attended the gathering at Hannaford Hall.
“(Abraham) Lincoln used to talk about public opinion baths, and I think that is what I had today,” King told the audience.
Unlike other recent town hall-style meetings held by members of Congress, Sunday’s event was civil and relatively orderly. There were only a couple of instances when people criticized a speaker, and there were no protests. Of the 57 people who spoke during the first session, 13 said they supported Gorsuch, citing his adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law.
The majority of speakers said Gorsuch, a federal appellate judge in Denver, was not a free thinker and would set back the country by basing his decisions on laws that were written decades ago. Like the judge he would replace, the late Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch is a self-proclaimed originalist who would interpret the intent of the Constitution as it was written 230 years ago.
“The world has changed tremendously in 230 years,” Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, told King. “The world is changing and it will continue to change. We need to have a judge who will keep their mind open.”
After the first listening session ended, King said he met privately with Gorsuch last week for about an hour in an attempt to better understand his judicial philosophy and temperament. He was asked by a member of the audience if he would support the Gorsuch nomination.
“I haven’t decided yet,” said Maine’s junior senator, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
King told the audience that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal last year to take up President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court “was wrong.”
King said he believes the Senate abdicated its constitutional responsibilities by not acting on Garland’s nomination, “but having said that, we are where we are.”
Maine’s senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, has not announced how she will vote, but has spoken favorably of Gorsuch.
“Judge Gorsuch is an individual with great integrity and extraordinary intellect who has a deep respect for the law,” she said in a statement after she met with Gorsuch in Washington last month. Collins had urged her Republican colleagues to give Garland consideration last year, but her plea was ignored.
Speakers at Sunday’s event expressed opinions, not only on Gorsuch, but about a wide array of topics – from the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia to the possibility of the president’s impeachment.
“The Russian scandal raises questions about the legitimacy of the Trump administration,” Michele Meyer of Eliot told King. “He should not be allowed to make this lifetime appointment.”
Meyer asked King to persuade his fellow senators to postpone a vote on Gorsuch until the investigation into the alleged Russian connections is complete.
Michael Lambert, a small-business owner from Portland, said Garland would have been the perfect Supreme Court nominee, someone capable of “bringing both parties together.”
“Garland was nominated with less than a year left on Obama’s term. Do you think that Trump still has that much time left?” Lambert asked King, his remarks drawing laughter and loud applause from the audience.
“I am concerned that there is an elephant in the room that has not been acknowledged. We are a country headed toward fascism,” said Martin Steingesser of Portland. He said Gorsuch, like some of Trump’s other appointees, will only carry the country farther down the path of authoritarian rule and right-wing government.
Others expressed a positive view of Gorsuch.
Penny Morrell of Belgrade, the state director for Concerned Women for America of Maine, stood in the lobby outside Hannaford Hall holding a sign that read: “Confirm Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Vote Yes for Gorsuch.”
“Antonin Scalia was a strict constitutionalist. He didn’t make laws or interpret laws, and Judge Gorsuch will do the same,” Morrell said.
Steve Buker of Bridgton also supports Gorsuch.
“He will be bipartisan and will see both sides of an issue,” Buker said.
Prior to the listening sessions Sunday night, Maine Republican Party Chairman Demi Kouzonas issued a statement urging King to support an up-or-down vote for Gorsuch. In the Senate, 60 affirmative votes would be needed for confirmation. There are 52 Senate Republicans.
“Angus King should be less worried about political posturing and should be more concerned about working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support an up-or-down vote in the full Senate for Neil Gorsuch,” Kouzonas said. “The American people and the good people of Maine’s 2nd District voted to send Donald J. Trump to the White House and with that, granted him the opportunity to nominate the next Supreme Court justice.”
King said he plans to carefully study Gorsuch, his background, and his rulings because the nominee, if confirmed, could have an impact for decades.
“This is a 30-year proposition. Neil Gorsuch is 49 years old. If history is our guide, he could serve into his 70s,” King said.
Gorsuch’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for March 20.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: