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Trump’s Nominees Think Life Tenure on the Federal Bench Should Be Handed Out Like a Participation Trophy

Matthew Spencer Petersen answers questions during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Matthew Spencer Petersen answers questions during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. C-SPAN

At a Wednesday Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican Sen. John Kennedy asked Matthew Spencer Petersen a few basic legal questions. Petersen, whom Donald Trump has nominated to the powerful U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, could not define a motion in limine or describe the Daubert standard. Kennedy’s quizzing went viral after Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who also serves on the committee, shared it on Twitter.

Petersen drew widespread criticism for his legal ignorance, and rightly so—most second-year law students could easily identify the terms Kennedy tossed out. The best defense of Petersen is that he once held this knowledge but let it atrophy due to his current job duties: He has served on the Federal Election Commission since 2008, joining with his fellow conservative commissioners to consistently block enforcement of federal election law, particularly campaign finance restrictions. In this capacity, Petersen has not often had occasion to revisit the rules of evidence or civil procedure.

But as National Review’s David French points out, Petersen’s rustiness hardly absolves him; it merely reveals his arrogance. If Petersen had spent a single day preparing for Wednesday’s hearing, he probably could’ve knocked a majority of Kennedy’s questions out of the park. A quick review of law school study guides or bar prep material likely would’ve refreshed his memory. Petersen may not be experienced—he has spent only three years working on litigation—but he has good credentials. He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law (a terrific school) and secured a job at the prestigious firm Wiley Rein. The problem isn’t just that he didn’t know what Kennedy was talking about. It’s that he didn’t care enough to read up on the law beforehand.

Petersen, it seems, operated under the presumption that a Republican-controlled committee would throw him softballs and rubber stamp his nomination. Kennedy helped sink the nomination of judicial nominee Brett Talley in large part because he showed a similar imperiousness, failing to disclose controversial writings and a conflict of interest to the committee and assuming he could get away with it. He did not, thanks to Kennedy. And as Wednesday’s hearing showed, the senator is now screening Trump’s nominees to ensure they take the process seriously, reportedly to the chagrin of other Republicans.

Lifetime tenure in the federal judiciary should not be handed out like a participation trophy. Thanks to Kennedy—one of just a few Republican senators who cares that the Trump administration is funneling unqualified and unprepared individuals onto the bench for life—it won’t be. The senator’s grilling of Petersen was yet another warning to the White House that he won’t humiliate himself by green-lighting nominees who don’t even pretend to respect the process.

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