The New York Times headline is enticing and perhaps even a little bit ominous — “Neil Gorsuch Has Web of Ties to Secretive Billionaire.” It conjures up images of backroom deals, favor-trading, and shadowy, rich figures manipulating the law from oak-paneled rooms. Is the esteemed Judge Gorsuch a mere puppet? Who’s the puppeteer?
Well, it turns out that it’s Philip Anschutz, a billionaire so “secretive” that he owns the Weekly Standard and Washington Examiner. He’s so reclusive that he made possible such quiet little films as the Chronicles of Narnia series, Holes, and Charlotte’s Web (is that the “web” that ensnared Gorsuch?). He owns stakes in small-time sports teams like, umm, the Los Angeles Lakers and in cozy little venues like the Staples Center. My last posting in the Army Reserve was right next to the sprawling Anschutz Medical Campus, a place his family funded with a miserly $91 million gift. So, yeah, nobody knows the guy.
Why is he “secretive” then? Well, unlike some rich men, he doesn’t seem to seek out press coverage. Like most Americans, he values his privacy. His work is public. His private life is private.
As for the “web of ties,” it turns out that Gorsuch used to represent Anschutz, his executives, and his business. In other words, Gorsuch is Anschutz’s former lawyer. Apparently, Gorsuch did such fine work for Anschutz that Anschutz recommended him for the federal bench. Oh, and Gorsuch also befriended executives at Anschutz’s companies — to such an extent that they went in together on a vacation house.
Gorsuch, by the way, disclosed his ties to Anschutz and recused himself from cases involving his former clients, as ethical judges do.
Americans should take comfort from the fact that Gorsuch is so squeaky clean that this is a news story. Here’s a news flash: When lawyers do their jobs well, their clients tend to become their friends. I make no claim to be an attorney of Gorsuch’s caliber, but I have my own “web” of valued friendships and ties to former clients. This is completely normal in the practice of law, and lawyers without former clients as friends should worry about their own competence.
In reading this story, however, I can’t help but wonder how the same facts would be spun if the Gorsuch was progressive and his billionaire former client and friend was known for, say, giving money to stop climate change and enrich Planned Parenthood. Here’s a suggested headline: “Friendships Formed in Court; A Humble Billionaire Bonds with His Brilliant Lawyer.” Or, how about this: “A Progressive and His Mentor: How a Case Forged a Relationship.”
Anyway, here’s the real story. In private practice, great lawyers tend to have the best clients. Gorsuch was a great lawyer. Anschutz is among the best possible clients. Their legal relationship has been fully and properly disclosed. The New York Times has given us nothing more than a human interest story disguised as an exposé.