WASHINGTON >> Justice Neil Gorsuch addressed a conservative group at the Trump International Hotel today, drawing protests and criticism for speaking at a venue that is the subject of several lawsuits against the president.
In his remarks, Gorsuch called for civility in debates over public controversies. On the one hand, he said, the First Amendment guarantees that “Americans can say pretty much anything they want for more or less any reason they want more or less anytime they want.”
“But with every right comes a correlative responsibility,” he said. “And to be worthy of our First Amendment freedoms, we have to all adopt certain civil habits that enable others to enjoy them as well. When it comes to the First Amendment, that means tolerate those who don’t agree with us or those whose ideas upset us, giving others the benefit of the doubt about their motives.”
Some experts in legal ethics and many liberal groups questioned the wisdom and prudence of Gorsuch’s decision to speak at the hotel. Several lawsuits are challenging the constitutionality of foreign payments to companies controlled by President Donald Trump.
“It’s disappointing that Justice Gorsuch agreed to speak at President Trump’s hotel, when Trump’s failure to adequately divest his hotels and other assets creates unconstitutional conflicts of interest that could very well end up before the court,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, which represents lawmakers suing Trump.
“Justice Gorsuch told the Senate during his confirmation that he was committed to the independence and integrity of the judiciary,” Wydra said, “but the decision to speak at an event that profits the president sadly falls far short of that standard.”
Trump appointed Gorsuch to fill the vacancy created by the death last year of Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Republicans refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland, leaving the seat empty for more than a year.
Gorsuch’s remarks, which also touched on constitutional history and the work of the Supreme Court, were the keynote address of a lunch to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fund for American Studies, which says it supports “principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership” through academic and fellowship programs.
Before Gorsuch spoke, Roger Ream, the group’s president, told the audience that he had been surprised by the controversy over the location of the lunch, adding that politics had played no role in the choice.
In November, Gorsuch will speak at a black-tie dinner at the annual convention of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that helped compile lists of candidates to replace Scalia. Gorsuch’s name appeared on one of those lists.
Last week, Gorsuch made appearances in Kentucky with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, who led the effort to block Garland’s nomination.
Outside the hotel, several dozen people protested. “Justice Gorsuch’s appearance at an establishment that benefits his president is something I’m concerned about,” said one of them, Maya Berry.
Since joining the court in April, Gorsuch has voted consistently with its most conservative members, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. On Tuesday, for instance, the three justices dissented from the court’s decision to stay the execution of Keith Tharpe, a Georgia death row inmate who said his trial was tainted by the participation of a racist juror.
Appearances by justices before groups with political leanings are not unusual. Thomas and Alito have addressed the Federalist Society. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, all members of the court’s liberal wing, have spoken before the American Constitution Society, a liberal group.
Gorsuch’s critics have focused on the venue of his talk rather than the nature of his audience. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, said, for instance, that the appearance vindicated Democratic opposition to Gorsuch’s nomination.
“Justice Gorsuch speaking to a conservative group in the Trump Hotel, where the president continues to hold a financial stake, is everything that was wrong with his nomination,” Schumer said in a statement. “There’s a reason we questioned his independence during his confirmation hearings.”
The lawsuits against Trump are based on the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, which prohibits at least some federal officials from taking some kinds of gifts and payments from entities controlled by foreign governments. The Justice Department has argued that the emoluments clause does not bar ordinary commercial payments to Trump’s companies, and Trump’s defenders say he has taken measures to distance himself from his holdings.
At his confirmation hearings in March, Gorsuch briefly discussed the emoluments clause in an exchange with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.
“Among other things,” he said, “it prohibits members of the government of this country from taking emoluments gifts from foreign agents, and the question is, what exactly does that mean? And that is the subject on which there is ongoing litigation right now.”
“I have to be very careful about expressing any views,” he said. Gorsuch did not discuss the clause today.