Gorsuch may be decisive vote in divisive Supreme Court cases

With Neil Gorsuch's confirmation as the 113th Supreme Court justice on Friday, it won't be long before he starts revealing what he really thinks about a range of hot topics he repeatedly sidestepped during his confirmation hearing.

In less than two weeks, the justices will take up a Missouri church's claim that the state is stepping on its religious freedom. It's a case about Missouri's ban on public money going to religious institutions and it carries with it potential implications for vouchers to attend private, religious schools.

Other cases the court could soon decide to hear involve gun rights, voting rights and a Colorado baker's refusal to design a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding. Some of those cases may come up April 13, which could be Gorsuch's first private conference — where justices decide whether to hear a case. It takes four votes to do so, though the court does not generally announce each justice's decision.

Arkansas' intention to execute up to eight men over 10 days beginning April 17 also could land at the court in the form of last-minute pleas for a reprieve. By late spring or early summer, the court might be asked to consider President Donald Trump's proposed ban on visitors from six majority Muslim countries.

Also potentially awaiting Gorsuch's decisive vote are six cases that were argued before the end of 2016 and remain unresolved. If the justices are divided 4 to 4 in any of them, the most likely route to breaking a ties would be to schedule a new round of arguments, with Gorsuch participating.

Included in that batch are lawsuits involving racial discrimination in housing and political redistricting, and the rights of detained immigrants.

Both sides in the bruising battle over Gorsuch's nomination think they have a good sense of how he will come down on the big issues of the day, from his record as an appellate judge in Denver since 2006 and his recommendation by conservative groups. They expect Gorsuch to, in effect, restore the working conservative majority that was in place when Justice Antonin Scalia was alive. Gorsuch will take the seat of the conservative icon who died in February 2016.

While that remains uncertain, it's safer to say Gorsuch should know his way around the venerable building.

Like Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Gorsuch once served as a law clerk at the court, so the building's layout and its idiosyncratic ways will be somewhat familiar to him. Samuel Alito reported he sometimes had trouble finding his way around as a new justice, and the challenge was all the greater because the court was going through a major renovation at the time.

Alito had argued cases in front of the justices, but he said it didn't prepare him for the building's confusing layout or the view from the bench.

"It was unreal. It was sort of surreal. I've had many times during those periods where I've had to pinch myself to say, 'Yeah, you're really here. You're on the Supreme Court. This is really happening,'" Alito told the Newark Star-Ledger in an interview in July 2006, a half of a year after joining the court.

Further easing Gorsuch's transition is that his former boss, Justice Anthony Kennedy, remains on the court. It's the first time a justice will serve alongside his former clerk.

The 49-year-old Coloradan also will be the first member of Generation X, the cohort of Americans following the post-World War II baby boom, to reach the court. He'll be the youngest justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 84, is the oldest.

As the newest justice, Gorsuch will also take over two duties performed by Kagan since 2010. When the justices are alone in their conference room and someone knocks on the door, it is the junior justice who answers. He also will become the newest member of the court's cafeteria committee, where replacing Kagan will be no mean feat. Her tenure brought with it a frozen yogurt machine.

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