During Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court seat Senate Republicans held open for a year until Donald Trump could fill it, the judge was dogged by questions about a case in which he voted against a trucker who nearly froze to death in a broken down truck. Thursday evening, Gorsuch turned this case into a punchline.
The case involved Alphonse Maddin, who was driving in subzero temperatures when the brakes on his trailer froze. Maddin waited hours for assistance, but none came. Finally, after he began to show symptoms of hypothermia, he unhitched the trailer — despite instructions from a supervisor not to do so — and left seeking help. He was later fired for “violating company policy by abandoning his load while under dispatch.”
The case eventually reached a three-judge panel that included Gorsuch. Gorsuch’s two colleagues sided with Maddin in his suit against his former employer. Gorsuch sided against Maddin.
In his dissenting opinion, Gorsuch suggested this was an easy case. The relevant federal law permitted truckers in a situation like Maddin’s to “refuse to operate” their truck out of safety concerns. Gorsuch claimed that Maddin was fired for operating his truck — when he disconnected the trailer and left to get help. “It might be fair to ask whether TransAm’s decision was a wise or kind one,” Gorsuch lectured his two colleagues. “But it’s not our job to answer questions like that.”
Which brings us back to Gorsuch’s Thursday night speech to the Federalist Society, an influential group of conservative lawyers. The premise of Gorsuch’s joke is that he was unfairly attacked during his confirmation hearing because he reached a result that was required by the law. A judge may be presented with a law, Gorsuch began his joke, and “immediately know three things.”
One, the law is telling me to do something really, really stupid. Two, the law is constitutional and I have no choice but to do that really stupid thing the law demands. And three, when it’s done, everyone who is not a lawyer is going to think I just hate truckers.
The joke was a hit with the gathered Federalist Society members, who laughed and clapped uproariously after Gorsuch delivered his punchline.
But here’s the thing. Either Gorsuch is wrong, and his vote in TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board was a cruel swipe at a man who, after nearly freezing death, was illegally humiliated by his employer. Or Gorsuch is correct, and what happened to Alphonse Maddin is the horrible consequence of a terribly worded law. Maddin’s case is neither an easy win for Maddin nor the slam dunk for Maddin’s employer that Gorsuch thinks it is, but whoever is right about the law, this case is a human tragedy.
Or, if you are Neil Gorsuch, it was an annoyance that briefly stood between you and a powerful job in Washington. And now it is something to joke about.