Justice Neil Gorsuch's introduction to his new job begins Thursday when the Supreme Court gathers in conference ahead of next week's oral arguments.
The justices gather behind closed doors without staff to vote on cases under review and decide whether to hear other cases. Four justices must agree to take a case for it to proceed to the high court.
Gorsuch's presence will be felt immediately Thursday, when the court will decide whether to tackle two cases involving First Amendment rights and police-involved shootings.
The court will consider whether to hear arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case involving a cake artist who refused to design a cake for a same-sex marriage. The fight is over whether Colorado's Anti-Discrimination Act violates the artist's religious beliefs and therefore violates his First Amendment rights. The high court has relisted the case numerous times for consideration, but may not do so again now that the Supreme Court has a full bench of nine justices.
The high court also will decide whether to hear Salazar-Limon v. City of Houston, a case dealing with a police officer who shot Ricardo Salazar-Limon, who was unarmed, in the back. The dispute involves the question of whether a court may rule for the officer in a suit about excessive force simply by relying on the officer's testimony that Salazar-Limon was reaching for his waistband when he said he was just walking away.
Gorsuch's thinking could prove crucial to whether the high court decides to take the cases and how it may ultimately decide them.
South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman told the Washington Examiner via email that the high court's decision to relist the cake case multiple times "suggests that the justices are waiting for Justice Gorsuch to consider the case. To grant a petition, it only takes four votes. Perhaps there were three. Justice Gorsuch may be the fourth."
But Thursday's proceedings will place a premium on seniority, meaning Gorsuch's turn in the private deliberations will come last. Gorsuch will function as the "doorkeeper" during the conference because of his status as the most junior justice, which means he is responsible for requesting reference material and obtaining it at the door during meetings, according to the Supreme Court Historical Society.
At the 10th Circuit Court Bench and Bar Conference in 2016 on the legacy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Elena Kagan appeared on a panel with Gorsuch and spoke about being the most junior justice during the high court's private conferences. During a "fireside chat" featuring Gorsuch and Kagan at the same 2016 conference, the Washington Post reported, Kagan told Gorsuch that the "doorkeeper" role is a job that the most junior justice cannot avoid.
"Literally, if I'm like in the middle of a sentence — let's say it's my turn to speak or something — and there's a knock on the door, everybody will just stare at me, waiting for me to open the door," Kagan said, according to the Post. "It's like a form of hazing. So, that's what I do, I open the door. Pronto."
Gorsuch, then a 10th Circuit Court judge and member of President Trump's Supreme Court short lists for Scalia's vacancy, asked Kagan in a separate panel conversation to share a memory of Scalia, and Kagan recalled her time in conference with him.
Kagan responded, "The way I remember [Scalia] most and best is getting me into trouble at conference all the time because of his just incredible wit and maybe his irreverence as well."
Kagan said the court's conference proceedings are held at a long rectangular table with Chief Justice John Roberts at one end and the senior associate justice at the opposite end, with the others justices seated around the table in order of seniority.
"For all the time that I have been at the court, Justice Scalia was the chief associate justice, so he sat on the opposite end of the table and as the junior justice, I sat on his right down at the other end from the chief justice," Kagan said. "And Justice Scalia would keep up a kind of running patter throughout our conference. And in our conference it's a pretty formal affair where everybody talks in turn and so forth. But Justice Scalia would sort of sotto vocce comment on everything — comment on the cases, comment on everything that was being said about the cases.
"And anybody who knows Justice Scalia knows that he has really, he had really an extraordinary sense of humor. He was an extremely witty man. So I would just be laughing all the time, except he was doing it kind of sotto vocce so that nobody would notice him and I would just sort of burst out laughing on occasion and the chief justice would be looking down at the table like what is going on there and why is Justice Kagan interrupting the proceedings. And I always wanted to kind of like go like this, like "No, it's his fault!" "
Gorsuch will take Kagan's seat as most junior justice, which comes with other undesirable responsibilities as well. The most junior justice, she said, is also relegated to the high court's cafeteria committee, where "literally the agenda is what happened to the good recipe for the chocolate chip cookies."
The Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments with Gorsuch on the bench for the first time next week, with all eyes trained toward a major religious liberty case about state funding of a church playground set to be argued Wednesday.