CAMBRIDGE -- US Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch on Friday extolled the fact that “government can lose in its own courts” in a free society.
Gorsuch, recently confirmed to the high court after being nominated by President Trump, spoke during an event at Harvard to celebrate the Marshall Scholarship program that allows Americans to pursue post-graduate studies in England.
He said both the US and the United Kingdom share common values around the rule of law.
They include the notion that “government can lose in its own courts and accept the judgment of those courts without an army to back up” the rulings, said Gorsuch, prompting applause from guests at the ornate Harvard Art Museums complex.
The remarks from Gorsuch came after some of Trump’s controversial executive orders, including a plan to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, have been struck down in the courts. But the new justice didn’t address those controversies on Friday.
The legal setbacks prompted Trump in April to tweet, “See you at the Supreme Court!”
Gorsuch was joined on Friday by Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a former judge on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.
Neither judge mentioned Trump directly during the hourlong panel moderated by Jeffrey Rosen, a journalist and president of the National Constitution Center.
The justices spoke mainly about the shared values of the British and US legal systems and the importance of an independent judiciary.
“Travel elsewhere” in the world, Gorsuch said, suggesting that judges are intimidated in other countries. “See how judges live. See how free they feel to express themselves.”
Breyer repeatedly stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom.
He also lamented that many states “hardly have” civics instruction in high schools any longer, adding that public service is vitally important.
Speaking of the Constitution, Breyer said, “it won’t work if you don’t,” drawing more applause from the crowd of former Marshall scholars.
Asked if he felt institutions that protect the rule of law are being threatened by populist forces, Breyer said, “they’re always under threat.”
Gorsuch also referenced the often angry tenor of public discourse in the country.
“I think there is a lot of skepticism about the rule of law,” he said.
Still, he added, he is always heartened by the sight of attorneys on opposing sides of a case shaking hands after battling in court.
“That’s how we resolve our differences in this society,” Gorsuch said.
Both justices studied in England as Marshall scholars, and Gorsuch drew laughter from the crowd when he shared a bizarre anecdote from his time at Oxford.
He recalled meeting a dean for tea and noticing a life-sized nude sex doll in the room.
The dean introduced the doll as Sandy and said that when necessary, “Sandy would supply the answers,” Gorsuch said.
“Did Sandy supply the answers?” Rosen asked.
The justice paused as the guests erupted in laughter and then gave a succinct response.
“Not for me,” Gorsuch said.