Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota blasted Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during his confirmation hearing Tuesday over a 2016 dissent, calling the ruling “absurd” and saying it made him question Gorsuch’s judgment.
Gorsuch was the only judge on the 10th Circuit to issue a dissent in the so-called “frozen trucker” ruling — a case Gorsuch’s critics have pointed to as evidence he prioritises corporations’ interests over employee welfare.
The case concerned a TransAm truck driver, Alphonse Maddin, who claimed he was wrongfully fired after he disregarded a supervisor’s instructions to stay with a broken down trailer, despite freezing temperatures outside.
Maddin had waited hours in the unheated truck after calling for roadside assistance, and said he grew numb and had slurred speech. He then disobeyed his boss’s order and unhooked the truck from the trailer and drove away. TransAm then fired Maddin.
Although the 10th Circuit sided with Maddin, Gorsuch argued that it wasn’t the court’s job to determine whether TransAm’s decision was “a wise or kind one.”
“Our only task is to decide whether the decision was an illegal one,” 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.”
During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Franken grilled Gorsuch on what he would have done in Maddin’s place, describing the situation as a choice between freezing to death versus driving dangerously.
“It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die, possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle,” Franken said.
“That’s absurd. Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it. And it makes me question your judgment.”
Gorsuch replied that he empathized with Maddin, adding “my heart goes out to him.”
Franken wasn’t the only senator to grill Gorsuch over the dissent — Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois also repeatedly questioned him on his ruling.
“It was 14 degrees below. So cold, but not as cold as your dissent, Judge Gorsuch,” Durbin said during the hearing, leading to a tense exchange with Gorsuch.
“All I can tell you is my job is to apply the law you write,” Gorsuch said.