On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump is expected to announce Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, to be his nominee for the Supreme Court. But Neil isn’t the first in his family to serve the federal government. The political career of his late mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, could prove telling about his own leanings. Burford was the first female head of the EPA — and by most accounts, she wasn’t a very good one.
Burford was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served for about two years. Her tenure was marked by perceptions that she was “a handmaiden to industry.” She became known for her efforts under Reagan for working to lessen the clout of the federal government in the area of environmental regulations, trying instead to devolve authority and give the states more leeway over their own jurisdictions. The realization of this goal meant weakening the EPA, which was not seen favorably by activists or members of either political party.
Gaylord Nelson, chairman of The Wilderness Society at the time, said that Burford was engaging in a “wholesale dismantling” of environmental progress. Her disdain for federal authority came to a head when she refused to provide Congress with documents relating to a toxic waste cleanup. Burford declared that she would “go to jail rather than surrender them to Congress.”
Later, in 1984, after she’d left the EPA, Reagan nominated Burford to serve as Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, another climate-focused body. This time, thanks to her much-derided stint at the EPA, the Senate voted 74-19 to ask that Reagan rescind her nomination.
With respect to Neil Gorsuch, Burford’s career can be a vehicle for predicting his behavior should he be appointed to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch has proven solidly conservative in many areas, but he doesn’t have much of a judicial record on environmental issues. If his mother’s career is any indication, then Scott Pruitt may find himself with an ally on the Court as Gorsuch hands down rulings against the expansion of federal regulations. It’s possible he’d couch those opinions in the same logic his mother used: that these matters are better left to individual states.