Supreme Court Nominations

Frozen trucker case is among decisions said to illustrate Gorsuch's legal approach

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Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch.

Conservatives and liberals both agree that the case of the frozen trucker is among the decisions that best illustrate how Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch sees the law.

Liberals say the dissent by Gorsuch shows how he denies important remedies to workers, while conservatives say the decision shows his devotion to applying the law as written, the Washington Post reports. (sub. req.) also discusses the case in its story on important Gorsuch dissents during his time as a judge on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The August 2016 case, TransAM Trucking v. Administrative Review Board, interprets a provision of the federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act. It bars employers from firing workers who refuse to operate a vehicle because of safety concerns.

The trucker, Alphonse Maddin, had pulled to the side of the road in cold Illinois weather after missing a refueling stop. As he considered what to do, the brakes on his trailer froze. He called a dispatcher for assistance and was told to stay in the truck until a repair vehicle arrived. Maddin said he drifted off to sleep in his unheated cab, and when he awoke, he was numb and experiencing slurred speech. He unhooked the trailer and drove away to find help. Maddin was fired for abandoning the trailer.

Gorsuch disagreed (PDF) with the panel majority, which found that the law protected Maddin. Gorsuch acknowledged the firing decision might not be wise or kind. But the court’s job was to interpret the law and its protections for those who refuse to operate a vehicle.

“The trucker in this case wasn’t fired for refusing to operate his vehicle,” Gorsuch wrote. “There’s simply no law anyone has pointed us to giving employees the right to operate their vehicles in ways their employers forbid.”

Two other important decisions cited by experts contacted by the Post involve a fight over funding for Planned Parenthood in Utah and Chevron deference, which holds that federal courts should defer to federal agency views when Congress passes ambiguous laws.

Gorsuch supported the Utah governor’s decision to suspend federal funding for Planned Parenthood and criticized deferring to federal agency interpretations.

The Utah case, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah v. Herbert, overturned the Utah governor’s decision to suspend federal funds for Planned Parenthood after a heavily edited video appeared to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue. The officials were cleared of wrongdoing, and the federal funds did not support abortions, but the governor tried to stop funding anyway.

Gorsuch had argued, unsuccessfully, that the case should be reheard. That opinion (PDF) has buoyed abortion opponents, as did another decision supporting businesses and nonprofits that did not want to offer contraceptive coverage for religious reasons.

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