Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is not a lawyer. He does not have the years of experience with the American legal system that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has, and less even than that of his fellow members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But when questioning Gorsuch about a particular case from his past, Franken was able to run circles around a veteran legal mind using his knowledge of one area where he the Senate's most qualified member: Comedy.
Franken asked Gorsuch about what has come to be known as "the frozen truck driver case" — a case that came before Gorsuch during his time on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the case, Alphonse Maddin, an employee of TransAm Trucking, was shipping cargo through Illinois when the brakes on his trailer froze.
Maddin called in an emergency to his dispatcher but was told to wait. After more than two hours in subzero temperatures, Maddin began to lose feeling in parts of his body and called in again. After being told to wait a second time, Maddin ignored the order, unhitched his truck from the trailer and drove away to find warmth. That got Maddin fired.
Maddin sued over the firing, citing a Department of Labor rule that said a driver can't be fired for refusing to operate a vehicle because of safety concerns. But Gorsuch ruled that because the driver had technically "operated" the vehicle, his case did not apply.
Franken doesn't buy that argument. The Minnesota liberal cited a standard in legal rules that says if using the "plain meaning" of the text would create an "absurd result," judges should depart from using that meaning in their interpretations of the law.
"It is absurd to say that 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 — that's absurd." Franken argued.
"Now I had a career in identifying absurdity and I know it when I see it," he continued, drawing laughter with the reference to his time as a writer and cast member on Saturday Night Live. "And it makes me question your judgement."
"I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it." —@SenFranken on Neil Gorsuch
Gorsuch, for his part, appeared flustered, with his eyes darting around the hearing room.
The only other senator who appeared to get under Gorsuch's skin Tuesday was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who grilled the Colorado judge on his positions on campaign finance. Specifically, Whitehouse forced the judge to account for the dark money groups who are supporting his own nomination to the Supreme Court.
"There's been a lot of talk about how this is outside of politics and we're above politics," Whitehouse said, referring to the ways in which Supreme Court nominees attempt to conceal their political allegiances during confirmation hearings. "But there is a group that is planning on to spend $10 million on TV ads, in which their own press release describes as a comprehensive campaign of paid advertising, earned media, research, grassroots activity and a coalition enterprise — all adding up to the most robust operation in the history of confirmation battles." He continued, "That sounds pretty political to me."
Whitehouse then pressed Gorsuch on whether or not he believed dark money groups like the one supporting his nomination should be forced to disclose their donors, before pressing Gorsuch specifically on a Philip F. Anschutz, an oil and gas billionaire from Colorado with ties to Gorsuch.
Whitehouse then asked Gorsuch why someone would spend $10 million to make him a Supreme Court justice.
"You'd have to ask them," Gorsuch replied, but the answer was immediately shot down by Whitehouse.
"I can't," Whitehouse said, "because I don't know who they are."