Republicans Spent the Gorsuch Hearing Chatting About Sheep and Basketball

Did you think confirmation hearings were for real questions?

Judge Neil Gorsuch
Judge Neil Gorsuch greets an attendee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on Wednesday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Almost halfway through his multihour interview for membership at the Algonquin Golf Club, Judge Neil Gorsuch took a stroll down memory lane. As his interlocutor, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, chortled encouragingly, he entered the reminiscence gym, where the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White awaited him to play a game of hoops. Cruz had wanted to know “what it was like to be a law clerk” for the illustrious jurist. Had Gorsuch been “lucky enough to get him on the basketball court?” Why, to be sure, old boy! White’s “hand-eye coordination,” confided Gorsuch dreamily, “was uncanny.” Of course, the justice had cracked his eighth decade by then, so he and Gorsuch played H-O-R-S-E instead of pickup. Heh heh heh, responded Cruz. Heh heh heh.

Good ol’ Justice White was just one of the surprise stars of this week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Farm animals were another. Members of the Judiciary Committee were treated to anecdotes about Gorsuch’s pet goat, and they heard some Reddit inanity about duck-sized horses and horse-sized ducks. They also listened to Cruz recite Bible verses in which lions and lambs napped next to each other in heaven.

Nowhere was livestock’s central role in the American legal system more clear than when Cruz grilled Gorsuch about his experience lassoing “law clerks, some of them very much not from the West” for field trips to the Denver rodeo. The event organizers have a tradition of maneuvering a prize steer into the lobby of the city’s finest hotel, Gorsuch recalled. This led to a discussion of “mutton busting,” or the process by which “you take a poor little kid, you find a sheep, and you attach the one to the other.” Naturally, the judge explained, “You have to hold on monkey style, really get in there, or you go flying right off.” Heh heh heh, said Cruz.

“We could talk mutton busting all day,” Gorsuch observed. His eyes met Cruz’s. I am a WASP-y Harvard grad disguised as a cowboy, they said.

Heh heh heh, Cruz’s eyes replied. I am a Komodo dragon disguised as a Jesus freak.

We shall never speak of this, the men agreed.

Gorsuch had spent the previous seven hours declining to expound on his legal views or comment on past Supreme Court decisions, but as he waxed long on sheep and broncs, the room dissolved in laughter. How incongruous, to stick a cow in a hotel! How delightful, to release a rhetorical petting zoo into a Supreme Court confirmation hearing! Rather than vet Gorsuch for a lifetime appointment on the highest judicial body in the land, Republicans had decided to have a chummy, backslapping conversation about cattle and the jump shot of an Oxford-attending, NFL-playing Rhodes scholar.

Here, then, is a question for everyone in attendance: Is a Supreme Court confirmation hearing the place for small talk? Gosh! Well, gentlemen, it is when you would rather not subject the judge to scrutiny and have a lot of time to kill. It is when your objective is to project likability and to spotlight the charming reasonableness of your guy, your guy who, through no fault of his own, happens to be sitting in a stolen seat and is facing an unfair uphill battle when it comes to public popularity. Besides, falling into these rhythms feels unavoidable when you all went to law school together, belong to the same country clubs, know the same people, hold the same values, and enjoy the same hobbies. Gabbing about pointless crap in a jocular manner is how many people unwind; gabbing good-naturedly about skiing, fishing, basketball, and rodeos is how rich white men who aspire to folksiness for reasons of political expediency do it.

Relax, Neil, was the message coming from the Republican committee members. We’ll scratch your back. One day, you’ll scratch ours.

The next GOP inquisitor was Jeff Flake of Arizona, who had solicited many of his questions from his extended family. It was his 15-year-old son who wondered about the duck-sized horses. (The judge was stumped.) His brother Scott wanted to know if Gorsuch had “ever worn gym shorts and a tank top under your robe?” (Gorsuch pleaded the fifth.) The senator’s mom hoped to discover whether the judge—related, albeit distantly, to the founder of a luxury ski apparel company in Vail, Colorado—liked to ski. “That is one of our [family’s] favorite activities,” Gorsuch verified. “My daughters are ferocious double black diamond skiers.”

The reply appeared to satisfy Flake, who as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee had been selected by his party to ensure that the nominee’s children were sufficiently advanced in winter sports. He had yet to confirm that Gorsuch had been endorsed by ex-NFL icon John Elway or to identify “the largest trout you ever caught.” Nor had Sen. Mike Crapo ascertained, at that point, the judge’s favorite stream for fly-fishing, which is highly useful information if you are a trout who takes issue with his dissent in TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board.

But at least we found out, once and for all, that Gorsuch had been called for jury duty! And while the pesky Democrats didn’t solve any distracting mysteries about the judge’s past decisions or the politicization of his nomination, Sen. Ben Sasse did raise the important issue of “how in the world … Gorsuch [is] able to go so many hours at a time without peeing” before remembering himself. “I won’t make you answer,” Sasse reassured his buddy. Phew.