Trump judicial nominee stumped by basic legal questions

Matthew Petersen struggles during US Senate confirmation hearing

One of Trump's district court judge nominees, Matthew Petersen, was unable to answer a series of basic questions on law when asked by US senator John Kennedy. Video: Reuters


A Trump federal judicial nominee was stymied by a line of questioning on basic knowledge of procedural law during his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, raising questions about the fitness of Trump’s choices for the posts.

“MUST WATCH”, tweeted Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

“[Senator Kennedy] asks one of [Donald Trump’s] US District Judge nominees basic questions of law & he can’t answer a single one. Hoo-boy.”

The video of the encounter comes just as Mr Trump managed to set a new record for the number of judicial nominees confirmed in a president’s first year. Mr Trump had a huge structural advantage when he came into office to outpace previous regimes and his administration has quietly made the reshaping of the federal judiciary a top priority.

In the video, the man in the hot seat was Matthew Petersen, currently serving as a commissioner with the Federal Election Commission. Mr Trump nominated him for the prestigious and pivotal federal circuit court of the District of Columbia in September.

Senator John Kennedy, a Republican, began his line of questioning to the five candidates present for the hearing by asking if any had not “tried a case to verdict”, to which Mr Petersen raised his hand. Mr Kennedy, a trained lawyer, then questioned him on some key legal principles that turn up in federal court cases:

“Do you know what a motion in limine is?” Mr Kennedy asked.

“I would probably not be able to give you a good definition,” Mr Petersen responded.

“Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?” Mr Kennedy continued.

“I’ve heard of it, but again,” Mr Petersen responded, trailing off.

To non-lawyers, the exchange might have sounded like a succession of “gotcha” questions, esoteric queries intended to make the candidate appear unqualified. But the principles in question are essential knowledge for the job that Mr Petersen is trying to be confirmed to perform.

A motion in limine, for example, is a request by council, outside the presence of a jury, to exclude evidence which a party feels is too prejudicial to even be mentioned in open court. They are a routine feature in almost any trial setting.

Different path

Mr Petersen tried to explain his inability to answer with the fact that he’s taken a different path than the one “many successful district court judges” have taken.

“I understand the challenge that would be ahead of me if I were fortunate enough to be named a district court judge,” he said to Senator Kennedy.

Despite his apparent shellacking of Mr Petersen, Mr Kennedy’s office declined to answer on whether or not he would ultimately vote for Mr Petersen’s confirmation.

“In the past year, I have supported nearly every one of president Trump’s picks, but I don’t blindly support them,” Mr Kennedy said in a statement. “I ask questions that I expect them to be able to answer. In doing so, I’m just doing my job.”

Even as Mr Kennedy seemingly tries to highlight his loyalty to the president, the fact remains that he was the first Republican to break with the administration and vote against one of Trump’s nominees, Gregory Katsas, in November. The same week, Mr Kennedy spoke forcefully about two picks he found particularly unqualified.

“It is embarrassing,” Mr Kennedy told reporters about one of Mr Trump’s nominees, “and I think the president of the United States is getting some very, very bad advice.”

The senator also said he had raised concerns about Mr Trump’s nominees to the White House, but added: “It’s like talking to the wind.”

Other GOP senators appear to be breaking with the president on judicial nominees too, albeit in less confrontational ways. Judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley advised the president to “reconsider” two nominees - Brett Talley and Jeff Mateer - earlier this week, and the White House ultimately decided to not move forward with them on Wednesday.

Mr Talley became a widely panned pick, after it emerged that he was less than three years out of law school, had never tried a case, was married to a White House staffer creating a possible conflict of interest that he did not disclose, and because of some controversial blog posts he had penned.

Mr Mateer, meanwhile, had been under scrutiny for anti-LGBT views. –Guardian