The federal judge who will hear the closely watched Boston legal challenge of President Trump’s immigration ban is known as a no-nonsense jurist who takes a conservative but reasonable approach to cases and his views of the law, according to colleagues.
US Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton can appear stern from the bench, those who know him say, showing no appetite for courtroom theatrics or grandstanding. But those who have worked with him say his demeanor on the bench belies a deep thoughtfulness that allows him to put politics aside in weighing a case.
“He really just tries to get the right result,” said Roberto M. Braceras, an attorney at Goodwin Procter in Boston and a former federal prosecutor who clerked for Gorton at the start of his judicial career. “He’s a great guy, very smart, hard-working judge, very faithful to the law.”
On Friday, Gorton will hear arguments in the challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and local immigration lawyers to the president’s immigration order that temporarily banned immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — and all refugees from entering the US.
Early Sunday morning, two on-call federal judges in Boston granted a temporary restraining order against enforcing the president’s order, though that judicial order is set to expire Sunday. Gorton will decide on Friday whether to continue that order. Though similar requests have been filed in jurisdictions across the country, the case before Gorton is among the more advanced in legal proceedings.
Gorton was assigned to take over the case through a random draw.
A father of three who now dotes on his grandchildren, Gorton was appointed by Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992. At 78, he still plays hockey. He also enjoys the theater — he participates in “Shakespeare and the Law” events sponsored by the local legal community, and has supported local charitable groups, including the Home for Little Wanderers, according to friends and those who know him.
Gorton is descended from the founders of the original Gorton Seafood company and his brother, Slade Gorton, is a former Republican US senator from the state of Washington.
Gorton attended Dartmouth College and Columbia University School of Law and served in the US Navy. He was first assigned to the federal court in Worcester, and later transferred to the Boston court in 2004. He was appointed by former US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist to serve on the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2001 to 2008, and in 2014 he wrote about the experience for the Boston Bar Journal. He downplayed criticism of the secrecy of the court, saying it “does, in fact, provide judicial oversight to the gathering of foreign intelligence for national security purposes.”
During his career, he has also overseen a range of criminal and civil cases, including the criminal prosecution of lawyers and civil disputes between the city of Boston and the taxi industry. In 2006, he stripped the US citizenship of an 89-year-old Sutton man, ruling that the retired factory worker had aided Nazi soldiers as they rounded up thousands of Polish Jews to be slaughtered during World War II.
Brian Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who now works for Nixon Peabody, recalled several cases he tried before Gorton, including the prosecution of 1960s fugitive and radical Katherine Ann Power, who helped rob a National Guard armory in 1970. It was 1993, a year after Gorton had been appointed to the bench. He sentenced Power to five years in prison.
“He was new to the federal bench but he handled the case very skillfully and in thoughtful fashion,” Kelly said. “He’s a decisive and thoughtful jurist, who will be fair to both sides, and in the end that’s what you want in a judge.”
Robert Fisher, also a former federal prosecutor, said he found the judge to be “fair, respectful to both sides, unquestionably.”
“I always felt that when you went into his session, you knew what to expect,” he said. “I always thought he took the time to hear you out, paid attention.”
But the challenge to the Trump order could be one of the most high-profile cases in his 25-year-career.
His first task will be to consider whether to extend the restraining order that was issued Sunday in Boston. Both sides have since fleshed out their legal arguments: The ACLU has named six new plaintiffs who allege the ban discriminates against them and unconstitutionally restricts their travel while government prosecutors say the president has wide discretion in deciding who can enter the country, and that there is no longer a need for the court’s emergency intervention.
Gorton will have to weigh the arguments, putting emotions and politics aside, a task with which others say he is familiar.
“He stays faithful to the law,” Braceras said, “regardless of whether the politics is something he would believe in or not.”