WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Tuesday nominated Neil Gorsuch for a lifetime job on the U.S. Supreme Court, picking the 49-year-old federal appeals court judge to restore the court's conservative majority and help shape rulings on divisive issues such as abortion, gun control, the death penalty and religious rights.
The Colorado native faces a potentially contentious confirmation battle in the U.S. Senate after Republicans last year refused to consider Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy caused by the February 2016 death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia.
The Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, indicated his party would mount a procedural hurdle requiring 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate rather than a simple majority to approve Gorsuch, and expressed "very serious doubts" about the nominee. Liberal groups called for an all-out fight to reject Gorsuch while conservative groups and Republican senators heaped praise on him like "outstanding," "impressive" and a "home run."
Gorsuch, the son of a former Reagan administration official, is the youngest nominee to the nation's highest court in more than a quarter century, and he could influence the direction of the court for decades. He is a judge on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and was appointed to that post by Republican President George W. Bush in 2006.
Announcing the selection to a nighttime crowd in the White House East Room flanked by the judge and his wife, Trump said Gorsuch's resume is "as good as it gets." Trump, who took office on Jan. 20 and has sparked numerous controversies, said he hopes Republicans and Democrats can come together on this nomination for the good of the country.
"Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous discipline, and has earned bipartisan support," Trump told an audience that included Scalia's widow.
"Depending on their age, a justice can be active for 50 years. And his or her decisions can last a century or more, and can often be permanent," Trump added.
Gorsuch is considered a conservative intellectual, known for backing religious rights and writing against euthanasia and assisted suicide, and is seen as very much in the mold of Scalia, a leading conservative voice on the court for decades.
"I respect ... the fact that in our legal order it is for Congress and not the courts to write new laws," Gorsuch said, as Trump looked on. "It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people's representatives. A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge, stretching for results he prefers rather than those the law demands."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the choice of Gorsuch was seen by the White House as a significant departure from Supreme Court nominations from the recent past, given that many justices have come from the eastern United States. Gorsuch lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he raises horses and is a life-long outdoorsman.
The official said a screening committee helped in the selection process that included Vice President Mike Pence, White House counsel Don McGahn, chief of staff Reince Priebus and top strategist Steve Bannon.
Gorsuch became the youngest U.S. Supreme Court nominee since Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1991 selected conservative Clarence Thomas, who was 43 at the time. Gorsuch was in the same 1991 graduating class from Harvard Law School as Obama.
The selection of Gorsuch, who was on a list of about 20 judges suggested by conservative legal activists, unified Republicans in a way not seen since Trump's Nov. 8 election victory, with even critics within the party such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham singing the nominee's praises.
Trump made his choice between two U.S. appeals court judges, Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to a source involved in the selection process.
The Senate confirmed Gorsuch for his current judgeship in 2006 by voice vote with no one voting against him.
Democrats signaled it may not be easy this time.
"Judge Gorsuch has repeatedly sided with corporations over working people, demonstrated a hostility toward women's rights, and most troubling, hewed to an ideological approach to jurisprudence that makes me skeptical that he can be a strong, independent justice on the court," Schumer said.
Trump got the opportunity to name Scalia's replacement only because the Republican-led Senate, in an action with little precedent in U.S. history, refused to consider Obama's nominee for the post, appeals court judge Merrick Garland. Obama nominated Garland on March 16 but Republican senators led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denied Garland the customary confirmation hearings and vote.
"This is the first time in American history that one party has blockaded a nominee for almost a year in order to deliver a seat to a president of their own party. If this tactic is rewarded rather than resisted, it will set a dangerous new precedent in American governance," Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said.
McConnell said on Tuesday he hoped the Senate would show Gorsuch "fair consideration and respect the result of the recent election with an up-or-down vote on his nomination, just like the Senate treated the four first-term nominees of (Democratic) Presidents (Bill) Clinton and Obama."
A rally outside the Supreme Court building staged by liberal groups drew hundreds of demonstrators against Gorsuch.
Michael Keegan, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, described Gorsuch as an "ideological warrior who puts his own right-wing politics above the Constitution."
Gorsuch is the son of Anne Burford, the first woman to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She served in Republican President Ronald Reagan's administration but resigned in 1983 amid a fight with Congress over documents on the EPA's use of a fund created to clean up toxic waste dumps nationwide.
Trump's selection was one of the most consequential appointments of his young presidency as he moved to restore a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that had been in place for decades until Scalia died at age 79 on Feb. 13, 2016.
Trump's fellow Republicans hold a 52-48 Senate majority, meaning some Democratic votes would be needed to confirm his pick under current rules. Trump said last week he would favor Senate Republicans eliminating the procedural move that Democrats have promised, called a filibuster, for Supreme Court nominees if Democrats block his pick. Such a change has been dubbed the "nuclear option."
Trump has said his promise to appoint a conservative justice was one of the reasons he won the Nov. 8 presidential election, with Christian conservatives and others emphasizing the importance of the pick during the campaign.
If confirmed, Gorsuch would expand the court's conservative wing, made up of John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy Samuel Alito and Thomas. Kennedy long has been considered the court's pivotal vote, sometimes siding with the liberals in key cases such as the June 2016 ruling striking down abortion restrictions in Texas.
The court's restored conservative majority likely would be supportive toward the death penalty and gun rights and hostile toward campaign finance limits. Scalia's replacement also could be pivotal in cases involving abortion, religious rights, presidential powers, transgender rights, voting rights, federal regulations others.
Gorsuch boasts Ivy League credentials: attending Columbia University and, like several of the other justices on the court, Harvard Law School. He also completed a doctorate in legal philosophy at Oxford University, spent several years in private practice and worked in George W. Bush's Justice Department.
Gorsuch joined an opinion in 2013 saying that owners of private companies could object on religious grounds to a provision of the Obamacare health insurance law requiring employers to provide coverage for birth control for women.
As long as Kennedy and four liberals remain on the bench, the court is not expected to pare back abortion rights as many U.S. conservatives fervently hope. The Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. In June, the justices ruled 5-3 to strike down a Texas law that restricted abortion access, with Kennedy and the liberals in the majority.
The current vacancy is the court's longest since a 391-day void from 1969 to 1970 during Republican Richard Nixon's presidency. After Abe Fortas resigned from the court in May 1969, the Senate voted down two nominees put forward by Nixon before confirming Harry Blackmun, who became a justice in June 1970. Aside from that one, no other Supreme Court vacancy since the U.S. Civil War years of the 1860s has been as long as the current one.
Trump may get to make additional appointments. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who Trump called upon to resign last July after she called him "a faker," is 83 while Kennedy is 80. Stephen Breyer, another liberal, is 78.
(Corrects disciple to discipline in paragraph 6)
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Eric Beech, Susan Cornwell, Andrew Chung, Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey, Ayesha Rascoe and Doina Chiacu; Writing Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney