New York Magazine



TWO YEARS AGO, the Supreme Court heard a case with bleak implications for the country’s labor movement. A California teacher named Rebecca Friedrichs decided she didn’t want to pay fees to the union that represented her because she didn’t want it funding liberal causes. So she sued. If the Court ruled in her favor, which no one doubted it would, public employees could choose to stop paying such fees, potentially triggering a vicious cycle of membership flight and financial ruin. But then Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep on a ranch in West Texas and the case ended in a 4-4 deadlock. The fees would remain; the unions were spared. At least for a while.

In late February 2018, like stagehands striking and rebuilding a set, the Supreme Court did it all over again. The case it heard was nearly identical, except the employee was named Mark Janus and his union was in Illinois. A free-market interest group that represented Janus just replaced the I STAND WITH REBECCA signs with STAND WITH MARK signs and handed them to people outside the courthouse. This time, the conservatives would almost certainly get their win. Poised to break the tie was Justice Neil Gorsuch, sipping happily from a thermos on the stage-left end of the bench. Republicans were in heaven. “Try funding the modern Democratic Party without union dues,” said GOP operative and anti-tax obsessive Grover Norquist, who was milling around the Court. “Good luck.”

It was for moments like these that Senator Mitch McConnell, in 2016, had engineered the unprecedented nullification of President Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, when he blocked a Senate vote on Merrick Garland. To partisan Democrats, McConnell’s galling land grab wound up being a fitting antecedent to Donald Trump’s election: first a stolen Court seat, then an illegitimate president. For partisan Republicans, though, a solid right-wing vote on the Supreme Court made the chaos and lunacy of the Trump presidency tolerable. “But Gorsuch” has become the “Keep Calm and Carry On” of Trump-era conservatism.

As such, there wasn’t much drama about where Gorsuch was leaning on the day of the union case. (The decision will be announced by the end of June.) As his first full term on the bench comes to an end—he was confirmed in April 2017, after a snippy but ultimately uneventful three days of Senate confirmation hearings—he has proved a reliable conservative, voting in favor of upholding death sentences, strengthening gun rights, and weakening same-sex-marriage protections. The curiosity that morning, as it has been for the past year, was more about Gorsuch the person. He had been introduced to Washington, D.C., as a mild judge from crunchy Boulder who had worshipped at a liberal Episcopal church and charmed former colleagues across the political spectrum. Before he was confirmed, Slate legal writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote that Gorsuch was a “brilliant, witty, handsome, eloquent, perfectly pedigreed judge” who is “not a rank partisan like Justice Samuel Alito or a flame-throwing culture warrior like Scalia.” Within months, that early assessment had begun to strain. The day of the case, in the

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