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Former Classmates Reflect on Gorsuch's Law School Days

Neil M. Gorsuch graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991.
Neil M. Gorsuch graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. By Grace Z. Li
By Jamie D. Halper, Crimson Staff Writer

As President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil M. Gorsuch seems like an unlikely friend for many at Harvard Law School.

But as a student at the Law School, Gorsuch, a federal appeals judge who’s awaiting his Senate confirmation, was friendly with students from across the political spectrum, and his Law School peers remember a conservative who avoided confrontation with the largely liberal student body.

Philip C. Berg, Gorsuch’s friend from Law School, said the two were in the Lincoln’s Inn Society, a social organization for Law School students, and wrote for the Journal of Law and Public Policy.

“Between the Journal and just the school work we had, that was quite a bit and he socialized a lot with the class,” Berg said. “He rarely missed those things. I think he saw the value in making friends there as well.”

Berg said Gorsuch was very sensitive to those around him, offering unwavering support when Berg came out as gay after law school.

“Neil was among those first ones that I told, and his reaction was instant and without skipping a beat and just gave me a sense of ever since then of absolute respect for the relationship,” Berg said. “[He] did not treat me any different than he did the moment before I said that or different from any of the other friends.”

Some of Gorsuch’s peers from his time at the Law School, though, question the extent of the public service work he did as a student. In his nomination speech, Trump referred to Gorsuch’s work in the Harvard Defenders Program and the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Program, but some of Gorsuch’s peers have said that they don’t recall his involvement in the programs.

Elizabeth Buckley Lewis ’87, who was in Gorsuch’s Law School class and an active member of PLAP, said she did not recall knowing Gorsuch during her time at the Law School or seeing him involved with the project.

“He may well have been something, but had he been really actively involved I think I probably would have known him because I was very actively involved,” Lewis said.

Adam H. Charnes, another friend of Gorsuch’s from the Law School, said that even in the tense, divided environment of the early 1990s when they were students, Gorsuch was well-liked.

“There was a lot of agitation and a lot of protests and some pretty significant divisions between sort of the more left-wing students and the small cadre of more conservative students, but Neil got along with everybody,” Charnes said. “He was not a provocateur or a bomb-thrower as some on both sides were. He was a sort of a moderate in approach and had friends on both sides.”

As a judge, Gorsuch has similarly not explicitly shared controversial views. Law School professor Michael J. Klarman wrote in an email that Gorsuch’s views on a number of contentious legal topics remain unclear.

“We don't know, based on his judicial opinions, what are Gorsuch's views on lots of issues, but he has given speeches suggesting courts have played too large a role on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and he has rendered decisions suggesting broad support for religious exemptions with regard to statutes that impose unwanted burdens on religious practices,” Klarman wrote.

Klarman wrote that while he would have preferred Merrick B. Garland ’74, former President Barack Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court whose confirmation was blocked by Republican senators, he didn’t have any particular preference about who Trump nominated.

“I regard Justices as largely fungible votes. Any Trump appointee would vote the same way on abortion, affirmative action, gun control, etc., as any other,” Klarman wrote. “Some might be better lawyers and write better opinions, but it is canard, in my opinion, to believe there is such a thing as ‘good legal reasoning’ that operates independently of political commitments, at least with regard to [constitutional] interpretation on the Supreme Court level.”

In a statement after Gorsuch's nomination, Law School Dean Martha L. Minow praised the Gorsuch's "devotion to public service" and "the rule of law."

"His work as a federal judge, scholar, teacher, and lawyer in both public and private practice, show commitment to rigorous thinking and fairness, and the nation is fortunate to have the benefit of his talents," Minow wrote.

Berg, who did not support Trump in the election, said he feels reassured by Gorsuch’s nomination.

“I do like the fact that he values the Constitution so highly and that makes me comfortable that he would, whoever is in the executive branch and whoever occupies the White there making sure that those powers aren’t extended beyond what were intended,” Berg said.

—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JamieDHalper.

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