Judge Neil Gorsuch testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the second day of his confirmation hearing to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia at the U.S. Supreme Court. March 21, 2017. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

New U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered his first opinion Monday, a tightly written unanimous decision that follows his pledge to focus on the text of statutes before the court.

Gorsuch’s decision in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, a case argued April 18, followed the high court’s tradition of giving the newbie a positive experience by assigning him or her to write in a relatively straightforward case likely to yield a unanimous decision.

The case asked the court to clarify what a “debt collector” is under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and Gorsuch spelled out the dilemma plainly: “Everyone agrees that the term embraces the repo man—someone hired by a creditor to collect an outstanding debt. But what if you purchase a debt and then try to collect it for yourself—does that make you a ‘debt collector’ too?”

His answer was no, an outcome that will be applauded by the burgeoning debt-buying industry, which does not want to be regulated under the 1977 law.

Gorsuch’s opening line drew quick praise Monday for being accessible, alliterative and jargon-free: “Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit, and more besides drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry.” At least one commentator, however, suggested the word “besides” was unnecessary. 

The 11-page decision bore down on the statutory language, dismissing the petitioner’s assertions about the context of the congressional debate over the law. In several of the cases Gorsuch heard in April after joining the court, he stressed the importance of text, rejecting suggestions to “make things up.” Gorsuch wrote in the opinion, “We begin, as we must, with a careful examination of the statutory text.”

Gorsuch even offered a grammar lesson in his decision. He dismissed the idea that the statute covers buyers of past debt, because the statute used past tense in defining a debt collector as someone who seeks to collect debts “owed … another.” 

“Past participles like ‘owed’ are routinely used as adjectives to describe the present state of a thing,” Gorsuch countered. “So, for example, burnt toast is inedible, a fallen branch blocks the path, and (equally) a debt owed to a current owner may be collected by him or her.”

At the end of his decision, Gorsuch wrote more sweepingly, “Constant competition between constable and quarry, regulator and regulated, can come as no surprise in our changing world. But neither should the proper role of the judiciary in that process—to apply, not amend, the work of the people’s representatives.”