Justice Neil Gorsuch tested out his comedic skills Thursday night in a speech before the conservative-leaning Federalist Society.
The newest U.S. Supreme Court justice spoke at the society’s annual dinner, which has been dubbed the Antonin Scalia Memorial Dinner in memory of Gorsuch’s predecessor. Gorsuch, speaking to a large, black-tie crowd in the main hall of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, focused his remarks on federalism and the importance of separation of powers, but managed to slip in a few jokes along the way.
Democrats and liberal advocacy groups have accused President Donald Trump of outsourcing his judicial nominations, including Gorsuch’s, to the Federalist Society, and have criticized the group for being secretive and opaque about its motives and level of involvement with the White House. Gorsuch made light of those accusations Thursday night.
“For starters, if you’re going to have a meeting of a secret organization, maybe don’t have it in the middle of Union Station,” the justice said, to thunderous laughter.
He said the society, if it wants to be secretive, shouldn’t be so obvious about its commitment to certain ideals, like that it’s the duty of a judge to “say what the law is, not what it should be.”
“You’re a bunch of radicals,” Gorsuch joked.
Gorsuch also joked about the so-called “frozen trucker” case, which became a point of contention during his nomination.
In the case, Gorsuch wrote in his dissent that an employer could legally fire a trucker for abandoning his disabled truck after waiting in the freezing cold for three hours for help, because the law only prohibited firing workers for refusing to operate a vehicle out of safety concerns, not for abandoning one. Democrats said the case showed Gorsuch lacked empathy.
Gorsuch said the case illustrated how judges are not supposed to make law, but follow it. He said good judges often look at a statute and immediately know three things.
“One, the law is telling me to do something really, really stupid,” he said. “Two, the law is constitutional and I have no choice but to do that really stupid thing the law requires. And three, when it’s done, everyone who’s not a lawyer is going to think I just hate truckers.”
But Gorsuch took a more serious tone as he promised the crowd he would defend both “originalism” and “textualism” from the bench.
“Neither is going anywhere on my watch,” he said, to applause.