A Dissent on Gorsuch: Life Above Text

On Thursday, April 20th, Arkansas state officials carried out the first of a series of eight planned executions. The officials were able to administer the lethal cocktail of drugs to Ledell Lee after a lengthy legal process, culminating in a 5-4 vote of approval from the Supreme Court of the United States. Fortunately, for various reasons, four of these condemned men have received stays of execution. Regardless, the state has already killed one man, and three men’s deaths remain scheduled. Regrettably, less than two weeks prior to the state-sponsored murder of Mr. Lee, “pro-life” organizations and advocates were lauding the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a supposedly “pro-life” candidate. On Thursday, however, upon news of Gorsuch condoning Lee’s murder with his first Supreme Court vote, these same organizations and self-proclaimed advocates remained silent.

 A truly pro-life ethic entails protecting all lives, no matter race or creed, from conception to natural-death. Capital punishment, by its very definition, conflicts with our ethical stance. By limiting the pro-life movement to a single political party that does not fully align with pro-life values, pro-life individuals are setting themselves up for failure. Pro-life values cannot be a partisan choice, but must be adopted as a universal truth to have complete success. Whether a Democrat, a Republican, or even a member of the United States Pirate Party, it is the duty of anyone who identifies as pro-life to be willing to step beyond party lines and condemn the blatantly anti-life actions of Neil Gorsuch as such.

Gorsuch’s selective disregard for life, although evident in prior court rulings, has truly been exemplified in giving his blessing to Lee’s execution. Lee, while a convicted murderer, had the same right to life that all humans have. Not only was his execution a crime, but the conviction and imprisonment of Lee were also crimes in and of themselves. He was originally convicted by a judge who was having an affair with the prosecutor. Furthermore, his appeal for a stay had strong foundations. Lee argued that he had an unfair trial after his public defender represented him while drunk and failed to introduce his diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome as evidence. Such accusations of ineffective council and disability are usually more than enough to warrant more time and closer state attention. 

Despite the strong grounds for appeal, however, Gorsuch voted to end the stay of execution, permitting Arkansas to continue with Lee’s murder. The same man who has said that, “all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong,” used his first vote as a member of the US Supreme Court to end the life of a man with an intellectual disability. It is the responsibility and moral obligation of any pro-life advocate who pushed for Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court to chastise his actions and commit him or herself to bettering his or her understanding of life issues. How, we would ask Justice Gorsuch, does a state taking a life differ from a “private person” taking a life in its immorality?

One does not need to examine Justice Gorsuch too closely before his pro-life facade begins to crumble. Gorsuch has always made clear his willingness to rule in favor of the letter of the law over the spirit of mercy both in his actions and in his words. For example, in the well-publicized case of TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board, Gorsuch once ruled that a truck-driver who was fired for abandoning a broken trailer to drive his unheated truck out of sub-zero, life-threatening conditions was rightfully fired for doing so. He saved himself by fleeing hypothermic conditions for the relative safe-haven of a heated gas station, but was later fired for abandoning his broken-down truck to save himself.  In a meticulously written opinion, Gorsuch explained that the text of the law did not specifically protect the truck-driver, and while the driver may have had reason to save himself, he did not have any legal protection. Of seven judges to hear the case, Gorsuch was the only one to rule against the truck driver. In this case, among others, he exemplified his belief that his interpretations of the letter of the law are more important than the sanctity of life he proclaims to believe in.

Gorsuch was advocated for as a pro-life candidate because of the strong, yet inaccurate, bonding of the pro-life label along party lines and the conflation of abortion as the only pro-life issue. Even if one views Gorsuch as an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice, Gorsuch’s writings and statements have made clear that even if he rules against abortion, he will only be doing so because of the text of the law and not on moral grounds. Gorsuch has said that part of being a good judge is “coming in and taking precedent as it stands. And your personal views about the precedent have absolutely nothing to do with the good job of a judge.” When specifically questioned about Roe v. Wade Gorsuch said, “[a good judge] stays with precedent, and does not try to reinvent the wheel.” Moreover, the repeated conflation of the pro-life movement and the Republican Party is a hasty generalization, which only stifles dialogue and further polarizes American politics. As an individual who does not conform to party lines, but rather believes in the universal sanctity of all human life, I see Neil Gorsuch as all individuals of the pro-life movement should: an obstacle and a threat to our cause.

Nicolo Orozco


RTL Tabling Co-Chair


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