One of President Donald Trump’s nominees to a lifetime seat on a U.S. district court struggled to answer basic questions about law during his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked a panel of Trump’s judicial nominees to indicate if they had never tried a case to verdict in a courtroom.
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) December 15, 2017
Matthew Spencer Petersen, a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, raised his hand. Kennedy proceeded to press him on legal matters.
KENNEDY: Have you ever tried a jury trial?
PETERSEN: I have not.
KENNEDY: State or federal court?
PETERSEN: I have not.
It only got worse from there.
Petersen, who is currently the chairman of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, struggled to answer more questions as it became clear he did not have the experience typically expected of a federal judge.
KENNEDY: As a trial judge, you’re obviously going to have witnesses. Can you tell me what the Daubert standard is?
PETERSEN: Sen. Kennedy, I don’t have that readily at my disposal but I would be happy to take a closer look at that. That is not something I’ve had to contend with.
KENNEDY: Do you know what a motion in limine is?
PETERSEN: Yes.. I haven’t, I’m, again, my background is not in litigation as when I was replying to Chairman (Chuck) Grassley (R-Iowa), I haven’t had to um, again, do a deep dive.
Petersen then began ticking off his experience “in a decision-making role” at the FEC. Kennedy interrupted him:
KENNEDY: Yes, I’ve read your resume. Just for the record, do you know what a motion in limine is?
PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table.
KENNEDY: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?
PETERSEN: Um, I’ve heard of it... but I, again.
KENNEDY: How about the Pullman abstention doctrine?
PETERSEN: I... I heard...
KENNEDY: Y’all see that a lot in federal court.
A number of Trump’s judicial nominees have come under fire for not being fit to serve on the federal bench. Four of his court picks have been rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association ― an embarrassingly high number to receive the abysmal rating in a president’s first year. One of them, district court court nominee Brett Talley, withdrew his nomination this week.
Part of the reason this keeps happening is that Trump is nominating judges at a breakneck pace without taking the time to thoroughly vet their backgrounds. That’s leading to problems later in their confirmation process, as senators discover more details about their background. Many of Trump’s court picks are being funneled to him by the The Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization focused on filling up courts with conservative judges.
Kennedy is one of few Republicans critical of Trump’s judicial nominees, saying at one point the president is “getting some very, very bad advice.”
See Kennedy’s full exchange with Petersen above.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.
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