It was nothing like the allegations of sexual harassment that threatened Clarence Thomas’s confirmation a quarter-century ago. But still, for a judge thought by many to have too high a regard for corporations’ interests and for the right of conservative religious folk to discriminate against other people, a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the very eve of his confirmation hearings alleging that Neil Gorsuch disrespected women taking maternity leave in a law-school class he was teaching just last year was very unwelcome to his cause. So it was an important moment when Senator Dick Durbin asked Gorsuch about the incident during today’s hearings. He flatly denied the account of the class made in the letter to the committee (written by one named and one unnamed woman), and indeed argued it inverted his sympathies:
“I’d be delighted to actually clear this up. Because the first I heard of this was the night before my confirmation hearing,” he said.
He said he teaches his legal ethics class at the University of Colorado off of a standard textbook, which has a section about the difficult lifestyle that comes with being a lawyer. He said one of the problems posed in the book is what a young female lawyer should say if she’s asked in a job interview if she intends to become pregnant soon.
“We talk about the pros and the cons in a Socratic dialogue so that they can think through themselves how they might answer that very difficult question,” Gorsuch said. “I do ask for a show of hands, not about the question you asked but about the following question, and I ask it of everybody: how many of you have had questions like this asked of you in your employment environment, inappropriate questions? And I am shocked every year, Senator, how many young women raise their hands. It is disturbing to me.”
At the moment, this has become a he-said, they-said situation, though one male student in the class in question has challenged the claim that the judge was taking sides with employers against women taking maternity leave. Gorsuch’s defenders have leaped onto the fact that the named correspondent who questioned his remarks, Jennifer Sisk, worked for former Democratic senator Mark Udall, and also for the Obama administration Interior Department.
We’ll have to wait and see if more testimony emerges, but at this point, Gorsuch has offered a plausible alternative take. The remarks he made in Sisk’s account would, quite frankly, have been egregiously stupid (or at least remarkably arrogant) for a sitting circuit-court judge, particularly just before a presidential election that might have opened up (and indeed did open up) an avenue to the Supreme Court. Whatever you think of him, Neil Gorsuch does not come across as stupid. But that’s all the more reason Sisk’s allegation could be deadly, if it emerges as an accurate account of his words and attitude.