‘Former Client Recommended Gorsuch for Tenth Circuit’

by Ed Whelan

The headline above surely isn’t as attention-grabbing, much less as conspiracy-mongering, as the actual headline on this New York Times article—“Neil Gorsuch Has Web of Ties to Secretive Billionaire”—but it does strike me as markedly more accurate.

For starters, the article itself describes the billionaire in question, Philip F. Anschutz, merely as “publicity-shy” rather than “secretive.” And if the NYT reporters wanted to learn more about Mr. Anschutz, they might have been able to get a useful lead or two from their own editorial-page editor James Bennet, whose brother, current Colorado senator Michael Bennet, worked for Anschutz for years.

But, more importantly, here’s the core of what the supposed “web of ties” between Gorsuch and Anschutz is alleged to consist of:

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.

Two observations:

1. The article’s claim that Mr. Anschutz “successfully lobbied … the Bush administration to nominate Judge Gorsuch to the federal appeals court” strikes me as curious phrasing. To be sure, a lawyer for Anschutz sent a letter on his behalf to the White House recommending that Gorsuch be nominated. But are we really supposed to believe that the Bush White House, on the lookout for bright young conservatives to appoint to the federal bench, had to be “lobbied” by Anschutz to select Gorsuch?

Gorsuch, after all, was serving at the time in the Department of Justice as the principal deputy associate attorney general. As a former D.C. Circuit and Supreme Court law clerk who practiced law in D.C., he was well known in conservative legal circles. And as a native Coloradan and former clerk to Byron White, he was an obvious pick for the Tenth Circuit vacancy that opened up in Denver.

As it happens, someone in the Bush administration who was very involved in the process that led to the nomination of Gorsuch tells me that, as far as he recalls, Anschutz’s name never came up during the process. What he does recall is that the idea to nominate Gorsuch arose during the normal interplay between the White House Counsel’s office and senior DOJ leadership, and that both the White House and DOJ immediately responded enthusiastically.

2. The article’s claim that Mr. Anschutz “sought to secure [the Tenth Circuit seat] for [Gorsuch]” sounds nefarious. But it’s far more plausible that Anschutz simply recognized Gorsuch to be, as the letter puts it, “an exceptionally talented lawyer” who would make an excellent judge.

What, after all, could possibly have been in it for Anschutz? He lost his past (and potential future) lawyer to the Tenth Circuit, where Gorsuch (as Anschutz and his top legal team would surely have foreseen) regularly recused himself from all matters involving Anschutz and his companies. That’s hardly the stuff of a conspiracy.

Disclosure: As its publicly available tax returns show, the Anschutz Foundation has generously supported the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the think tank I run. For example, this return—the most recent I have been able to find quickly in searchable format—reflects a $20,000 contribution in 2012.

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