It has not been a pretty week for President Trump’s judicial nominees. On Wednesday, two were removed from consideration before the Senate due to past scandalous remarks. (One of them, Jeff Mateer of Texas, once said that transgender children were part of “Satan’s plans;” another, Alabama’s Brett Talley, was discovered to have blogged in support of the Ku Klux Klan.)
And late Thursday night, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, posted a video to Twitter that’s now going viral. It’s footage of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing earlier this week, in which one lawmaker — a Republican, no less — grills a nominee over basic points of legal doctrine, only for the nominee to confess blusteringly that he doesn’t know the answers.
“You can just raise your hand on this one, to save a little time,” Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, says in the video. “Have any of you not tried a case to verdict in a courtroom?”
One of the five nominees before the committee, the lawyer Matthew S. Petersen, raised his hand.
“Have you ever tried a jury trial?” Kennedy asked.
Kennedy then asked him if he’d ever tried civil, criminal, or bench trials, or trials in either state or federal court; Petersen confirmed that he had not. Kennedy then moved on to ask him for definitions of certain legal tenets, with no more success.
“Do you know what a motion in limine is?” Kennedy asked.
Petersen’s answer was meandering and somewhat evasive. “I appreciate this line of questioning . . . but I believe that the path I have taken to be in a decision-making role on, I guess, somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 enforcement matters, overseeing I don’t know how many cases in federal court…”
“Yessir, I’ve read your resume,” Kennedy responded. “Just for the record, do you know what a motion in limine is?”
“I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table,” Petersen answered.
The video posted by Whitehouse (“Hoo-boy,” the senator commented in his tweet) has proven to be catnip for Democrats, who have lambasted Trump’s judicial nominees and tried to keep them off the bench. It has been an uphill battle. As the Huffington Post noted Thursday, Trump has so far successfully appointed 12 judges to the nation’s circuit courts — more than any other President in his first year in office since the courts were established 126 years ago. These judges are largely conservative, as is Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, whose appointment to the Supreme Court in April is considered one of Trump’s biggest accomplishments to date.
The votes in the Senate to confirm these judges have fallen along party lines — Democrats have coalesced to largely vote “no” every time — but as Whitehouse’s video shows, not every Republican can be swayed. Kennedy is a freshman senator from Louisiana who is regarded among the congressional press corps as a reliable source for a colorful quote (he described the Las Vegas shooter as a “perverted idiot” and said he’d have to be “drunk” to vote for tax hikes), and while his voting record is conservative, his questioning earlier this week is one more piece of evidence that GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill aren’t going to line up behind Trump on every issue.