Judge Neil Gorsuch and Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, got into a bit of a testy exchange during the Supreme Court nominee's Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
The exchange centered on a letter from a former law student of Gorsuch's that was posted Sunday. The student, Jennifer Sisk, wrote that the judge told a class at the University of Colorado Law School last year law firms should ask women about their family planning during job interviews. Additionally, Sisk wrote that Gorsuch implied women seek to gain maternity benefits by manipulating employers in interviews.
But Sisk, a formerly a Democratic staffer, faced backlash from fellow students after the letter went public, as another student came to Gorsuch's defense and disputed the characterization. Women who worked for Gorsuch as clerks also came out to defend the 10th Circuit Court judge from Sisk's claim, NPR reported.
The exchange between Durbin and Gorsuch began when the Illinois senator asked if Gorsuch personally believed there are situations where "the costs to an employer of maternity leave can justify an employer asking only female applicants and not male applicants about family plans."
"Senator, those are not my words and I would never had said them," Gorsuch answered.
"I didn't say that," Durbin replied. "I asked you if you agreed with the statement."
"And I'm telling you I don't," Gorsuch fired back.
Durbin then brought up the letter, which was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee late last week. Durbin said the complaint was originally made to the University of Colorado Law School in April, long before Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump.
"I want to get to the bottom of it," Durbin said, later asking, "Did you ask your students in class that day to raise their hands if they knew a women who had taken maternity benefits from a company, then left the company after having the baby?"
"No, senator, and I'd be delighted to actually clear this up," Gorsuch answered. "Because the first I heard of this was the night before my confirmation hearing."
Gorsuch said that the incident likely stemmed from discussion of one chapter of a textbook he uses while teaching legal ethics. The chapter "confronts lawyers with some harsh realities that they're about to face when they enter the practice of law."
He said, among the topics discussed, which include increased rates of suicide, alcoholism, divorce, and depression being at higher rates in the legal professions, they discussed the subject of maternity benefits coming up in the context of job interviews.
"There is one problem in the book ... which asks the question and it's directed at young women, because sadly this is a reality they sometimes face," Gorsuch said. "The problem is this: Suppose an older partner working at the firm you're interviewing at asks you if you intend to become pregnant soon. What are your choices as a young person? You can say yes, tell the truth, a hypothetical ... and not get the job. And not be able to pay your debts. You can lie, maybe get the job, say no, that's a choice too. That's a hard choice. Or you can push back in some way shape or form."
"And we talk about the pros and the cons in a Socratic dialogue that they can think through for themselves how they might answer that very difficult question," he continued.
Gorsuch said he asked his students to raise their hands if they were asked "an inappropriate question" about family planning in a job setting.
"And I am shocked, every year, senator, how many young women raise their hand," he said. "It's disturbing to me."
"I'm shocked it still happens every year, that I get women, not men, raising their hand to that question," he added.
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