*This piece originally appeared on the Whistleblower Protection Law Blog.
by Jason Zuckerman, Principal, Zuckerman Law
If Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, he will play a critical role in construing laws that protect worker health and safety, including laws protecting whistleblowers who suffer retaliation for opposing illegal or unsafe conduct that jeopardizes public health and safety. According to the Bureau of Labor Standards, 4836 workers were killed on the job in 2015—on average, that is more than 93 a week, or more than 13 deaths every day. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is already severely understaffed and will soon be further weakened by a political appointee charged with gutting it, the last thing workers need is an activist judge who has expressed disdain for worker-protection laws. But that is exactly what we can expect from Judge Gorsuch.
In a recent dissent in TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, 833 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2016), Judge Gorsuch demonstrated that he will construe worker-protection laws as narrowly as possible and that he deems worker “health and safety” as “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals. His opinion also reveals that his alleged values-neutral approach to statutory construction is intellectually dishonest. The majority decision affirming the whistleblower’s win at the Department of Labor was based on the plain meaning of the statute, well-established precedent construing the statutory term at issue and the purpose of the statute. Judge Gorsuch’s dissent, however, was arguably activist in that it rewrites the statute. In other words, Judge Gorsuch does not check his policy preferences or values at the courthouse door and render value-neutral decisions based on the dictionary definitions of statutory terms. Instead, as this opinion demonstrates, his alleged strict textualism appears to be a cloak for his policy preferences, including his apparent disdain for worker protection laws.