Donald Trump has selected federal judge Neil Gorsuch, a Colorado conservative with strong ties to DC, as his Supreme Court nominee. Much of his deep government roots come from his mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, who died in 2004 at age 62 and made headlines in the 1980s for her controversial tenure running the EPA. Like some other politicians and cabinet members who have recently assumed office, she was a big fan of deregulation and gutting her own department.
Before heading the EPA, Gorsuch was a member of the Colorado state legislature’s “House Crazies,” a group of right-wing conservatives who, according to a 1983 article in the Washington Post, “ousted the moderate Republican leadership” in a 1979 “uprising” with the goal of deregulating the government. Gorsuch headed the State Affairs Committee, reportedly known by some legislators as “the killing ground” because that’s where legislation died. After she tossed out a bill designed to manage hazardous waste, one state official told the Post that Gorsuch “seemed less concerned about public health than the burden on industry.”
Gorsuch, who later remarried and changed her name to Burford, was tapped to lead the EPA under Reagan. He was her “politico hero,” according to her obituary in the Washington Post. Her brief 22-month tenure as EPA head, however, was “one of the most controversial of the early Reagan administration.” She slashed the EPA’s budget by 22 percent and quickly drew the ire of both Republicans and Democrats in office. From the Post’s obituary:
“Republicans and Democrats alike accused Ms. Burford of dismantling her agency rather than directing it to aggressively protect the environment. They pointed to budgets cuts for research and enforcement, to steep declines in the number of cases filed against polluters, to efforts to relax portions of the Clean Air Act, to an acceleration of federal approvals for the spraying of restricted pesticides and more. Her agency tried to set aside a 30-by-40-mile rectangle of ocean due east of the Delaware-Maryland coast where incinerator ships would burn toxic wastes at 1,200 degrees centigrade.”
Soon, multiple congressional committees launched investigations into allegations of mismanaging the Superfund program, which was meant to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites around the country. Congress cited Burford in contempt for refusing to turn over Superfund records, and she eventually resigned.
In her 1986 memoir, Are You Tough Enough? Burford expressed feelings of betrayal. “When congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency, Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only ‘crime’ was loyal service, following orders,” she wrote. “I was not the first to receive his special brand of benevolent neglect, a form of conveniently looking the other way, while his staff continues to do some very dirty work.”
William Ruckelshaus, former EPA head under the Nixon administration, returned to lead the agency, where morale was low. “I told them we were going to respect science and the scientific method. I told them we were going to carry out the mission of the agency,” he told the Washington Post of the transition. “Once they saw that their work was going to be respected—in effect, the they had their assignments back, they had their jobs back, that calmed them down.”
I can’t quite place why, but all of this sounds eerily familiar. Well—except for the respecting science part.