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College Classmate: Neil Gorsuch Attacked Anti-Apartheid & Civil Rights Protesters & Defended Contras

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As Neil Gorsuch begins his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, we look at his extreme right-wing political positions as a student at Columbia in the 1980s and speak with his former classmate, Jordan Kushner. While on campus, Gorsuch co-founded the right-wing campus newspaper the Federalist Paper. The Associated Press reports that in Gorsuch’s writing both for the Federalist Paper and the Columbia Daily Spectator, he criticized anti-apartheid protests, saying divestment could hurt the university’s endowment. He also criticized racial justice protests and black-led movements on campus, while he defended the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra scandal.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d also like to bring into the conversation Jordan Kushner. He’s a civil rights and criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis. He was an undergraduate student at Columbia University at the same time as Neil Gorsuch. While on campus, Gorsuch co-founded the right-wing campus newspaper The Federalist Paper. The Associated Press reports that in Gorsuch’s writing both for The Federalist Paper and the Columbia Daily Spectator, on which I worked when I was an undergraduate there, he criticized anti-apartheid protests, saying divestment could hurt the university’s endowment. He also criticized racial justice protests and black-led movements on campus, while he defended the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra scandal.

Jordan Kushner, welcome to Democracy Now!

JORDAN KUSHNER: Thank you. Good to be here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, tell us about your interactions with Neil Gorsuch when you were both undergraduates there.

JORDAN KUSHNER: Well, the protect—progressive activists personally got singled out for attack. I think what stands out about Neil Gorsuch was that his views were completely formed as soon as he entered college as a freshman, which I think is unusual, and he had very solid right-wing reactionary views from the beginning. He was also, on a personal level, very polished and affable. And I think this is part of a consistent pattern, where he has a real commitment to reactionary politics and is able to put an appealing face on it.

And his positions really, I think, were extreme. He did attack South African divestment, after the university had already decided to divest. And he put out a real divisive argument that it was going to hurt student aid. He attacked a protest led by black students against racism on campus, not based on the substance of the issue, but saying that people involved were revolutionaries. He did stick up for Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair, Iran-Contra scandal, which was an extreme position even for conservatives at the time. And, I think, perhaps ominously, he said that it was within Ronald Reagan’s executive power to engage in these covert operations, where he engaged—he worked with one hostile regime to finance the Iran-Contras—to finance the Contras in Nicaragua, which were—people might not know who are watching this, who weren’t around at the time, but they were a really reactionary, CIA-funded group that was trying to overthrow the legitimate government in Nicaragua. And he put in a real strong defense of the Contras and said it was really urgent that they succeed.

And I think the other aspect of him that’s really consistent here is that he—whenever he attacked, attacked these left—these progressive positions and attacked progressive activists, which he did a lot of, it was never based on the merits of the issue. It was always based on some other reason. So, the—again, so South African divestment, it’s not an issue of apartheid being wrong, it’s an issue of having student aid, or that these protests aren’t bad, but the protesters are bad because they’re revolutionaries or they’re superficial. He made a lot of claims that they didn’t really know what they were doing, and they just enjoyed protesting. And that seems consistent with a lot of what he does as a judge, where he doesn’t really address the merits of the issue, but comes up with legal reasons for making unjust decisions.

And, you know, one opinion he made that really stands out is against a—that’s gotten some publicity, is where he dissented in a case involving a truck driver who got fired because his truck broke down on the side of the road at nighttime in the winter, and he thought he was freezing to death, so he drove his—left the trailer and drove the cab of his truck to a gas station so he could save himself, and he got fired. The NLRB, or the federal agency, sided with him. Two of the three judges on the court of appeals sided with him. But Judge Gorsuch dissented, saying that the plain language of the law didn’t protect him from being fired. So here’s a case where you have an extremely, extremely inhumane treatment of the worker, and Judge Gorsuch decides that he has to just stick with what he sees as the plain language of the statute, which is something that other people disagree with. So he’s willing to interpret laws in a way that comes up—comes out to really unjust results.

And so, I think his—if you look at the kind of positions he took in college, even though he was a polished, affable person, the positions he took were really ruthless. And that seems to be a continuing pattern when he’s an appeal judge. And I think we can presume it’s going to be that way as a Supreme Court judge, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, back in college, one, he founded The Federalist Paper, a very conservative newspaper, to counter the Columbia Daily Spectator. But in 1987, in a column he wrote in the Columbia Daily Spectator, Gorsuch opposed divesting from apartheid South Africa, arguing, quote, "Pro-divestment students call for the immediate withdrawal of University funds from all companies conducting business in South Africa. But in their haste to do the Right Thing, they are willing to overlook such mundane things as facts. Namely, that many of these companies are themselves in the act of divesting. Committee and coalition members seem willing to sacrifice the large income from the endowment—which goes to pay for our need-blind admissions policy, among other things." Can you talk about the politics at the time on campus, the divestment movement so often credited by the democratic movement in South Africa as helping to bring the apartheid movement down—the apartheid government down?

JORDAN KUSHNER: Sure. Well, you know, the interesting thing is that, I mean, I think divestment was a done deal on campus by two years by the time he wrote that column. And he was—I mean, the university had already decided to divest, in response to a massive, massive student protest, and that it really affected the national agenda. And here he is, about almost two years later, still attacking the idea of divestment. His group, I remember, also brought in a speaker from a right-wing think tank to denounce divestment, as well. And so, this is someone who’s really clinging to reactionary views and coming up with really divisive arguments, trying to turn students against the ideas, saying that these activists are your enemies because they’re going to hurt your ability to be able to continue to go to Columbia College. And so he’s coming up with real divisive arguments, as well. So, I think it’s—I think his positions certainly are disturbing and insidious on many levels.

And on one hand, you don’t want to hold against someone something that they did in college, but, again, I think it’s part of a consistent pattern here. He had really strong right-wing ties through his family connections coming into college. He got Coors beer funding, which is a notoriously right-wing advocate—corporation that had notoriously right-wing positions. And this is something that’s continued with his connections throughout his career, you know, working with billionaires, working—being a very active member of the Federalist Society, which is the main right-wing law organization that produces a lot of the judges that are on the federal bench. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to—

JORDAN KUSHNER: So we have a—

AMY GOODMAN: Jordan, I wanted to wrap up with Zephyr Teachout in Albany, New York, professor at Fordham, about an NPR report that says a former law student of Judge Neil Gorsuch alleges that in the course she took from Gorsuch at the University of Colorado Law School last year, the judge told his class that employers, specifically law firms, should ask women seeking jobs about their plans for having children, and implied that women manipulate companies, starting in the interview stage, to extract maternity benefits. So we’re going from him in college to him this past year teaching at University of Colorado.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Wow! I hadn’t seen that report. But I hope senators really push him on that, because that is an incredibly regressive, reactionary, harmful approach. And I think what you’re hearing overall is this is a guy who cleans up nice, but deep down is deeply reactionary. We think we’ve got to dig in. And I think all citizens should be paying close attention, because this guy could be around for an extremely long time. And if you think that Scalia did damage to our country, think about the damage that Gorsuch can do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all for being with us.

Zephyr Teachout, constitutional and property law professor at Fordham University, has run for public office twice, first as a candidate for governor of New York, last year a seat for Congress. Her recent piece for The Washington Post, we’ll link to; it’s headlined "Neil Gorsuch sides with big business, big donors and big bosses."

Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, where he covers voting rights, we’ll link to your piece, Ari, "In E-mails, Neil Gorsuch Praised a Leading Republican Activist Behind Voter Suppression Efforts." Ari Berman is the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.

And thanks to Jordan Kushner, civil rights and criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis, who attended undergraduate school at Columbia University with Neil Gorsuch. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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