US & Canada

Supreme Court choice Neil Gorsuch draws Democrat opposition

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Media captionDonald Trump picks Neil Gorsuch as US Supreme Court nominee

Leading Democrats have come out in staunch opposition to Donald Trump's nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the vacant position on the Supreme Court.

The court has the final say on such divisive issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.

If confirmed by the Senate, Judge Gorsuch, from Colorado, would restore the court's conservative 5-4 majority.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he was sceptical that the nominee could be a strong, independent justice.

Mr Schumer indicated that President Trump's nominee would require 60 votes to be confirmed by the Senate, suggesting that Democrats are planning to filibuster or talk out the vote. The Republicans only hold 52 Senate seats.

Last year, Republicans refused even to consider Barack Obama's nomination to the court.

Mr Trump named Judge Gorsuch, who sits as a Colorado appeals court judge, to replace the late conservative Antonin Scalia on Tuesday.

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Image caption Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (L) with Neil Gorsuch on a trip to Colorado in 2014

Supreme Court appointments are for life, and Judge Gorsuch, at just 49, could have many decades of service on the US's top judicial body.

Two of Judge Gorsuch's most high-profile appeals court rulings saw him side with business owners who objected on religious grounds to funding some forms of birth control via staff insurance plans.

Former Democrat presidential contender Bernie Sanders said Judge Gorsuch "must explain his hostility to women's rights, support of corporations over workers and opposition to campaign finance reform".

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Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren accused the nominee of siding with large companies over American workers.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Mr Trump's nominee "a very hostile appointment" and "a very bad decision, well outside the mainstream of American legal thought".

Can Democrats block the nomination?

Republicans would cry foul over a concerted effort to block Judge Gorsuch's confirmation.

However, Justice Scalia's seat became available 10 months before the end of Mr Obama's presidency and Republicans refused even to debate his pick of Judge Merrick Garland, claiming it was too close to an election.

There is no law that says a Supreme Court justice cannot be nominated by a president close to the end of his or her term in office.

Of the existing eight Supreme Court justices, four were nominated by a Republican president and four by a Democrat, though their votes do not always split along straightforward conservative/liberal lines.

Even if Judge Gorsuch makes it through the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will face challenges when the entire chamber convenes for a final vote.

Democrats may seek to prevent that second vote by prolonging, or filibustering, the debate. In that case, the nomination would need 60 votes rather than a simple majority.

Republicans may have to change Senate rules in order to approve Mr Trump's nominee.

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Media captionThe Supreme Court has been without a full bench for almost a full year

Where does Judge Gorsuch stand on key issues?

Abortion: He has not spoken out about Roe v Wade, the case which legalised abortion nationwide in 1973, making it difficult to pin down where he stands on the issue.

Birth control: Judge Gorsuch has supported religious institutions which objected to requirements for employers to provide access to contraception. In one of his most high-profile cases, he voted in favour of the religious owners of retailer Hobby Lobby who refused to fund certain forms of birth control via staff health insurance.

Gun rights: He hasn't ruled directly on firearms restrictions, but is thought to be generally pro-second amendment. He once wrote in a legal opinion that a citizen's right to bear arms "must not be infringed lightly".

Euthanasia: He has been vocal about assisted dying, writing a book in 2009 which opposed legalisation.

Why is the choice so important?

The highest court in the US is often the ultimate arbiter on highly contentious laws, disputes between states and the federal government, and final appeals to stay executions.

It hears fewer than 100 cases a year and the key announcements are made in June.

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Image caption Justice Scalia (front row, second from left) was one of five justices that made up the conservative majority

Each of the nine justices serves a lifetime appointment after being nominated by the president and approved by the Senate.

The court already has cases this term on the rights of transgender students, gerrymandered voting districts and on the Texas death penalty determination.

It is also likely the court will hear cases on voter rights, abortion, racial bias in policing and US immigration policy, and possibly on Mr Trump's controversial executive order banning refugees.