WASHINGTON — It's poker night in a row house in Oxford, England, and Neil Gorsuch, deep in studies for yet another degree, is feeling down. His housemates decide he needs a girlfriend.
Accounts differ on whether it was a dare or a gentle prod, but Gorsuch phones a woman he'd clicked with during a school dinner more than a year earlier — and she doesn't remember him.
That 1994 phone call may be one of the few times that Gorsuch, a federal judge nominated for the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump, didn't immediately stand out from the crowd. Louise Burletson agreed to go out with him anyway, and ultimately married the man Trump now describes as "perfect in almost every way" for the high court.
Gorsuch, whose Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday, is described by colleagues and friends as a silver-haired combination of wicked smarts, down-to-earth modesty, disarming warmth and careful deliberation.
Critics largely agree. Even so, they don't think he belongs on the court, believing him too quick to side with conservative and business interests at the expense of ordinary Americans.
At age 49, Gorsuch already has marked his 10th anniversary as an appellate judge in Colorado, styling himself in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative powerhouse whom he would replace.
Outside the court, he's the dad whose standing birthday present from his family is an agreement to watch a Western with him.
He's the sports nut who jogs with his law clerks, teaches them the Zen of fly fishing and waits at the top of the ski slopes to see who will need his help getting up after a fall.
He's the friend whose buddies remember his spot-on impressions of actor Jimmy Stewart and conservative commentator John McLaughlin.
Inside the court, he's the writerly yet "workaday" judge who crafts his opinions with uncommon clarity while wearing "honest, unadorned black polyester" robes from a uniform supply store.
He's also the judge who wrote that a university's six-month sick leave policy was "more than sufficient" for a cancer patient who sought more time off when a flu epidemic hit and she worried about how an infection might affect her weakened immune system.
Says Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America: "I'm hearing he's a really nice guy. That's way too low a bar for a jurist on the highest court in the land."
From his boyhood in Colorado, Gorsuch was a dutiful student, "always on the brainy side," says younger brother J.J. Gorsuch.
Even Gorsuch's childhood mischief tended toward the intellectual — he once read a book about gambling and put it to use by starting a basement casino for neighborhood kids.
Flash forward a few years: Gorsuch is at all-boys Georgetown Prep in suburban Washington. President Ronald Reagan had chosen his mother, Anne Gorsuch, a state legislator, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and she brought her three children east. Her husband stayed in Colorado as their marriage dissolved.
With politics in the air, Gorsuch inhaled deeply. He led schoolmates to a rally for insurgents opposing the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. His yearbook entry joked about founding the "Fascism Forever" club, a dig at left-leaning teachers. Most significant, he watched his mother's stormy 22-month tenure at EPA end with her forced resignation after being cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over subpoenaed documents.
Anne Burford, by then remarried, recalled her son telling her: "You only did what the president ordered. Why are you quitting? You raised me not to be a quitter."
After high school, Gorsuch was in and out of Columbia in three years, then on to Harvard Law without a break. Then off to Oxford to study legal philosophy, ducking out in the middle for a clerkship with Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy.
"I kept asking him, 'When are you going to stop doing all this and get a real job?'" recalls best friend Michael Trent.
The answer: 1995.
Gorsuch bypassed big firms and joined a start-up, representing both plaintiffs and defendants, recalls former partner Mark Hansen.
After a decade in private practice, Gorsuch in 2005 joined the Justice Department, where he was deeply involved in supporting the George W. Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program and its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. In 2006 Bush nominated him for the 10th Circuit back in Colorado. He promised to set aside personal political views in favor of the "cold neutrality of an impartial judge," citing political theorist Edmund Burke.
There he became known as a "textualist" who sticks within established law and precedent.
To critics, he favored the powerful.
They cite the case of a truck driver fired for leaving his trailer of meat on the side of an Illinois road after breaking down on a frigid night in 2009, fearing he'd freeze to death.
Gorsuch dissented from a ruling in favor of Alphonse Maddin's reinstatement, writing: "It might be fair to ask whether TransAm's decision was a wise or kind one. But it's not our job to answer questions like that."