When President Donald Trump announced that he had nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, conservatives cheered. Gorsuch has been widely described as a natural successor to the man he’s replacing, the late Antonin Scalia. The right has been burned by supposedly conservative Court appointees who turned out to be much more liberal, but nobody seems to think that will happen with Gorsuch.
A look at Gorsuch’s time as an undergraduate at Columbia University in the 1980s shows that conservatives have ample reason to be so trusting of him. Gorsuch was an active and vocally conservative participant on campus. He heatedly defended the Reagan administration through its worst controversy, criticized apartheid protesters, scorned black movements, and even founded a publication known for attacking campus activists. He also made arguments about the separation of powers that could provide an insight into what he would do on the Court.
In January 1987 Gorsuch, then a sophomore at Columbia, wrote a staunch defense of the Reagan administration over the Iran-Contra scandal—when the White House was caught making secret weapons sales to Iran (which was outlawed at the time) to trade for hostages (also outlawed) and raise money for Nicaragua’s right-wing contras (you guessed it, also outlawed)—in the Columbia Spectator.
Dismissing the “illegality claim” as a “superficial issue,” Gorsuch wrote that Reagan possessed the executive authority to make the trade—a classic conservative argument:
Many have speculated that the President doesn’t legally have the power to transfer funds from the sale of arms to Iran to the Contras, yet few recall —or more correctly, choose to recall—the powers of commander-in-chief. Jefferson, with his word alone, bought the whole of Louisiana and sent Louis and Clark off to explore it. More recently, FDR freely sent dozens of U.S. Navy vessels and arms to England before our entry into World War II. These presidents did not ask, nor did they need to ask, Congress, Sam Donaldson, or those precious presidential pollsters. Simply because members of Congress, news commentators, and folks at Columbia may not like Reagan’s action does not, believe it or not, make it illegal.
Congress—and the law—saw things differently. Multiple Reagan officials were sentenced for obstructing or deceiving Congress, and a congressional committee concluded the administration acted with “secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law.”
In another article, Gorsuch slammed a coalition of activists urging Columbia to divest from corporations supporting South African apartheid. They “seem willing to sacrifice the large income from (Columbia’s) endowment, which goes to pay for our need-blind admissions, among other things,” he wrote.
But Gorsuch was best-known on campus for founding a conservative campus publication, The Federalist Paper, which frequently ran attacks on campus activists. One of them was Jordan Kushner, a student two years above Gorsuch who is now a civil rights lawyer in Minneapolis.
“He had something against every progressive cause,” Kushner told me. “He criticized divestment movements, he criticized the protest against gentrification…he was hostile toward issues involving racism, back when he wasn’t trying to lay the groundwork to try and become a federal judge.”
The two clashed frequently. When Kushner took part in a campus boycott against Coors beer—a brand then being targeted for what critics saw as racist, homophobic, anti-labor practices, Gorsuch responded by running an ad for Coors in the The Federalist Paper, and falsely accused Kushner of “kicking and scratching at the kegs of Coors beer” in a story he later retracted. When Kushner was arrested in a protest against the eviction of a black employee from university housing, Gorsuch told the Spectator that the protest was one of “overwhelming superficiality” and wrote an op-ed mocking Kushner for “smiling” as he was dragged away by police.
When he wasn’t criticizing specific protesters, Gorsuch attacked protesters in general. “Fifteen students wandered about, aimlessly criticizing whatever struck their fancy…with a couple of illegible banners,” he wrote in one column, adding, “our protesters, it seems, have a monopoly on righteousness they are asking for special treatment, acting as a vigilante squad while avoiding the weight of their own actions.”
In March 1987, the campus was thrown into crisis when as many as 20 white Columbia students beat a group of black students and security guards while hurling racial slurs, sparking massive student protests about racism. Gorsuch again attacked the protesters.
“(They) constantly claimed that our ‘white, male, racist, capitalist society must be overturned.’” he complained in a Spectator column. “Last Saturday’s march was more a demand for the overthrow of American society… those who addressed the march argued not for a change within the system, but for a radical change of the system.” He predicted black students’ activism would lead to their “downfall.”
Gorsuch also made an unsuccessful bid for the University Senate, in which he argued that Marines—which did not allow LGBTQ people to serve openly at the time—should be allowed to recruit on campus because discriminatory recruitment was a form of “free speech.”
The capstone to Gorsuch’s college days? A Henry Kissinger quote next to his senior yearbook photo: “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”
Despite it all, Kushner describes Gorsuch as “affable” and “very intelligent,” with a knack for appearing moderate.
“He’s a pleasant face masking extreme political views,” Kushner tells me. “He was always taking as far right of a position as he could, but he would make an effort to sound reasonable.”
“I’m sure he’ll sound like that in the Senate hearings, but they’ll need to really delve into his positions. His political orientation is very dangerous.”
Jennifer Fearon, a former Spectator editor, contributed reporting.