Justice Neil Gorsuch is the latest member of the Supreme Court whose ties to money and power are being called into question. Gorsuch has been asked to recuse himself from a case that could significantly strip powers from federal agencies to enact health and environmental regulations.
The issue at hand is the Supreme Court justice’s close ties to secretive billionaire oil baron Philip Anschutz, whom Gorsuch once represented as a private lawyer before he was appointed to the federal judiciary. Anschutz has also hosted the conservative justice at a mountain resort called Eagles Nest for weekends of dove shooting, The Guardian reported.
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The Guardian said the recusal request was made by a leading watchdog group, Accountable.US. The group’s stated mission is to take on the special interests obstructing progressive change.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case known as Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. Former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is now serving as secretary of Commerce. On the surface, the case seems rather innocuous. The issue at hand, according to SCOTUSblog, is whether the National Marine Fisheries Service can require fishing vessels to pay for carrying federal observers on board to enforce agency regulations to prevent overfishing. But the bigger danger is that the case could be used by the conservative justices led by Gorsuch to remove the Chevron deference, named after a 1984 Supreme Court ruling involving the oil company, which calls on courts to defer to reasonable interpretations by federal agencies of ambiguous statutes.
New York Times environmental reporter Carol Davenport wrote:
The ultimate goal of the Republican activists … is to overturn the legal doctrine by which Congress has delegated authority to federal agencies to regulate the environment, health care, workplace safety, telecommunications, the financial sector and more.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told The Guardian that those pushing for the end of the Chevron deference “are hoping it will presage the demise of the so-called ‘administrative state’, which they believe prevents certain interests from maximizing profits through ‘overregulation.’”
The Guardian quoted Accountable.US President Caroline Ciccone as saying:
“Not only would overturning Chevron deference strip power from federal agencies, harming their ability to serve everyday Americans – but now, we know billionaire oil baron Philip Anschutz would score big from a favorable ruling by his friend on the high court.
“It’s far past time for these justices to stop putting their billionaire pals over Americans. Recusal from cases where they have glaring conflicts of interest is the very least they can do to restore some semblance of credibility and integrity to our Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court’s ethics have come under close scrutiny since ProPublica published details on the close relationships between Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito and billionaire Republican donors such as property magnate Harlan Crow and hedge fund manager Paul Singer.
There have been growing calls for Thomas to recuse himself from cases involving former President Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection. House Democrats urged Thomas to recuse himself from the case deciding whether Trump should be removed from the ballot under the 14th Amendment, which bars anyone who “engaged in an insurrection” from holding office, but Thomas did not do so. House Democrats also urged Thomas to recuse himself should the Supreme Court take up the case of Trump’s claim that he is immune from federal prosecution for alleged crimes committed while in office.
Under pressure, the Supreme Court did announce in November that the justices had adopted a new code of ethics, but left it to themselves rather than an outside arbiter (as is the case with other federal courts) to enforce the code, the Brennan Center for Justice said.
And now it is Gorsuch’s time in the barrel. His ties to Anschutz were described in detail in a March 2017 report in The New York Times just days before the start of his Senate confirmation hearing. Trump had nominated Gorsuch to the Supreme Court shortly after taking office in January 2017 to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
In a story under the headline ”Neal Gorsuch Has Web of Ties to Secretive Billionaire,” the Times wrote:
Mr. Anschutz’s influence is especially felt in his home state of Colorado, where years ago Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, a Denver native, the son of a well-known Colorado Republican and now President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was drawn into his orbit.
As a lawyer at a Washington law firm in the early 2000s, Judge Gorsuch represented Mr. Anschutz, his companies and lower-ranking business executives as an outside counsel. In 2006, Mr. Anschutz successfully lobbied Colorado’s lone Republican senator and the Bush administration to nominate Judge Gorsuch to the federal appeals court. And since joining the court, Judge Gorsuch has been a semiregular speaker at the mogul’s annual dove-hunting retreats for the wealthy and politically prominent at his 60-square-mile Eagles Nest Ranch.
Anschutz was also a donor to the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, both of which supported Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the Times reported.
With a net worth of $14.8 billion, Anschutz, 84, ranks number 45 on Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Forbes wrote that Anschutz “has built fortunes in oil, railroads, telecom, real estate and entertainment,” is the majority owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, and heads the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which has interests in 350 arenas and concert venues worldwide.
What is particularly noteworthy is that in 2006, a letter was written by an attorney on behalf of Anschutz to President George W. Bush’s legal counsel Harriet Miers recommending Gorsuch for a seat on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Gorsuch was nominated and confirmed for the appellate court seat. The letter read:
“I am writing at the request of Philip F Anschutz. Mr Anschutz spoke with Senator [Wayne] Allard [a Republican senator from Colorado] about Neil Gorsuch, and Senator Allard suggested we pass along Mr Gorsuch’s resume to you. …
“I have had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Gorsuch for several years, as we worked closely together on several complex federal cases. I have found Mr. Gorsuch to be an exceptionally talented lawyer.”
The lawyer who wrote the letter, Bruce Black, is now listed on LinkedIn as the executive vice president and general counsel of the Anschutz Company.
Politico also reported on another link between Gorsuch and Anschutz executives: Shortly after his Senate confirmation for the Supreme Court, Gorsuch sold a property he co-owned in rural Granby, Colorado, to the chief executive of a major law firm, Greenberg Traurig, which frequently is involved in cases before the high court. The co-owners of the Colorado property were Kevin Conwick, Anschutz’s legal counsel, and Cannon Harvey, an Anschutz executive, Politico reported.
Ciccone of Accountable.US told The Guardian: “This is just the latest in a long pattern of cozy relationships between Supreme Court justices and billionaires creating conflicts that undermine the legitimacy of the court.”
There is one big difference between Gorsuch and Thomas: Gorsuch was already a millionaire before he joined the federal bench. The Associated Press reported that Gorsuch gave up a $1 million a year paycheck when he left his private law practice to become an appellate court judge and earned $3.28 million in deferred payments in his first four years on the federal bench.
But there is also a similarity with Thomas regarding how his family ties might influence his rulings on the high court. His mother, Anne Gorsuch, an anti-environmental activist, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to head the Environmental Protection Agency and worked to undermine federal environmental regulations and reduce restrictions on business.
During her 22-month tenure as EPA administrator, The Washington Post wrote that she cut the agency’s budget by 22% and relaxed portions of the Clean Air Act. Nearly all of her subordinates came from the ranks of industries the EPA was charged with regulating. She was ultimately forced to resign as the result of a scandal over the mismanagement of the new $1.6 billion Superfund toxic waste clean-up program by effectively freezing its implementation. She was cited for contempt of Congress after refusing to turn over Superfund records, arguing that they were protected by executive privilege. Reagan replaced her with Bill Ruckelshaus, a moderate Republican who was appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1970 as the first EPA administrator.
Gorsuch has already indicated that he thinks the Chevron deference should go, The Guardian reported. Columbia professor Steven Cohen, who was forced out of his job as an EPA consultant in 1981 by Anne Gorsuch, wrote in a June 2022 article on Columbia’s State of the Planet website: “The irony today is that Gorsuch’s son, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, may finally have a chance to complete his mother’s anti-regulatory and environmentally destructive work.”
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