Anne Gorsuch, the mother of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, was my worst nightmare. In 1982, when I first confronted her about toxic contamination in Times Beach, Missouri, she led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Ronald Reagan.
Anne stepped down a few months later after she refused to hand over documents that would have revealed the EPA’s mishandling of the $1.6 billion Superfund for toxic cleanups. She said she would rather go to jail than release these documents. In doing so, she broke the law, and became the first U.S. agency director in history to be cited for contempt of Congress.
When his mother resigned, Neil was a 15-year-old sophomore and star debater at Washington, D.C.’s elite, Jesuit-run Georgetown Prep.
Neil was upset with his mother, she later wrote, saying, “You should never have resigned. You didn’t do anything wrong. You only did what the President ordered. Why are you quitting? You raised me not to be a quitter. Why are you a quitter?”
As a mother of four children, I know how much my actions influence my children’s behavior, values and principles. I can only wonder what impact Anne Gorsuch’s actions had on her son.
Even at age fifteen, Neil Gorsuch should have understood the difference between right and wrong. Why wasn’t his reaction, “Gee mom, at least the people living around landfills will now receive some attention?”
Or “If the President was making you do wrong, you should have stood your ground, and said no to him, and that you’d go to jail before hurting American families?”
Did Neil truly think his mother was above the law, because her boss told her to do something that was wrong? Or that she was right to withhold the truth from the American people?
A deep understanding of right and wrong is fundamental to ruling on cases in any level of court. Anne Gorsuch’s 22-month tenure at the EPA was one of the most scandalous of the early Reagan administration. She was a firm believer that EPA was too big, too wasteful and too restrictive of business, and cut the agency's budget by 22 percent. She boasted that she reduced the volume of clean-water regulations from six inches to a half-inch.
I was the leader at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY, where a toxic waste dump leaked 20,000 tons of chemicals into our neighborhood. As a result, 56 percent of our children were born with birth defects. In 1980, all eight hundred families from Love Canal were evacuated, and the federal Superfund program was established to provide funds to clean up other similar hazardous wastes sites. A polluter’s pay provision was the funding mechanism.
At the EPA, Anne Gorsuch supervised her assistant, Rita Lavelle in administration of the Superfund. Lavelle was later indicted on federal perjury charges after an investigation demonstrated she was involved in the misuse of these funds and in irregularities at the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a major hazardous waste site in Riverside, California. Lavelle was later convicted of lying to Congress and served three months in prison.
As EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch tried to ignore some of the worst toxic waste disasters in American history including Woburn, Massachusetts, the site of water contamination that caused a childhood leukemia cluster that became the subject of the book and movie A Civil Action. The Stringfellow Acid Pits were a site created by Gorsuch’s former employer, Aerojet-General Corp., which turned out to be even more toxic than Love Canal. Times Beach was contaminated with dioxin, the most toxic chemical known to man. Fortunately for victims, Congress forced Gorsuch to act.
I can’t help but wonder what was going through the mind of Neil, the young debater, as he observed all of this.
Did he think poisoning innocent people was fine? Did he truly believe that his mother didn’t have a legal and moral obligation to act to protect children, women or men from serious and irreversible harm, disease and death?
Was he comfortable when his mother ordered the evacuation of Times Beach from inside a local school with the media and elected representatives, but not a single impacted family? All of the local residents were locked out of the building because she didn’t want to face them and their tears and to see the effects of the toxic poisons eating way at their skin.
Almost daily at that time, national newspapers carried front-page stories about American families that were sick, terrified, and in need of action to reduce pollution in their communities. How did his mother’s role in these events shape Neil Gorsuch’s values as a young man?
For Neil Gorsuch to condone her behavior, saying she did nothing wrong, reveals a real flaw in his character. Would Justice Gorsuch advocate the same in a Supreme Court decision? If someone orders another person to do harm, will Justice Gorsuch somehow justify it because they were just following orders? Would Justice Gorsuch believe that someone’s loyalty to a President places his or her actions above the law?
I was devastated when I first arrived in Washington, 36 years ago, to work with communities faced with toxic pollution that couldn’t use this new Superfund program. My family and neighborhood’s suffering was the impetus for the program. Superfund had so much potential. I planned on using every piece of the program to assist communities to obtain clean water, air and land. Neil Gorsuch’s mother crippled the program, so much so that it has never fully recovered.
It’s clear to me that most children by 15 years of age know right from wrong. Neil Gorsuch watched as his mother allowed the poisoning of innocent American families, and allowed corporate polluters to escape responsibility. Then he condoned, and justified, her actions.
These are not attitudes that we want, or can accept, in a Supreme Court Justice.