Wittes on Reforming the Confirmation Process:

In contrast to Senator Kennedy's op-ed (which I discuss here), Benjamin Wittes offers a thoughtful essay in today's Washington Post on the judicial confirmation process, based in part on his interview of Chief Justice Roberts. (Interestingly, Senator Kennedy's essay is on the front page of the Post's Outlook section this morning, while Wittes' piece is buried on page 4.) Among other things, Wittes adds some useful historical perspective to the debate over judicial nominations.

As Wittes notes, judicial confirmation hearings have never been about the substance of a nominees views.

If the history of judicial confirmations proves anything, it is that the hearings were never meant to be a thoughtful inquiry into a nominee's judicial philosophy. Rather, their point has always been to wring concessions from would-be jurists or to tar them as unworthy. Since live testimony by nominees became standard after the Supreme Court's 1954 decision striking down segregated public schools, senators have sought to pressure nominees into swearing allegiance to contested ideas, or to make statements that provide ground for opposition.

That is what the hearings still achieve today. They function coercively not because they are failing their intended purpose. Coercion is their intended purpose.

Indeed, the nature of the political process is such that even if a serious probing of a nominee's substantive views were desirable (and I do not believe it is), such a dialogue would not occur in the Senate.

How should the hearings be conducted? Chief Justice Roberts' prescription does not sound so bad.

If there are serious questions about qualifications, senators should explore those. If there are serious questions about ethics, senators should explore those. If there are disputes about appropriate judicial philosophy and approach, talk about those. But barring that . . . everybody doesn't have to think that this is an opportunity for them to be the reincarnation of Clarence Darrow.
Wittes offers an alternative prescription: End nominee testimony.
The democratic moment is not the interrogation of the nominee. It is the point at which the people's representatives debate the nominee's record and cast their votes. Ironically, the hearings only obscure that moment. Many viewers probably remember Alito and Roberts demurring on how they would vote on abortion. But how many remember what a single senator said during the floor debate over either of them?
This is a good idea too, but I would not hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

I have long believed that the Senate should be quite deferential to a President's judicial nominations, should not vote for or against judicial nominees due to their judicial philosophy, and should ensure that all nominees receive a quick up-or-down vote, largely based upon the nominee's record, qualifications, and character. In my view, the relevant "democratic moment" occurs during the Presidential election, but I realize this is anything but a consensus view. I also believe that past Democratic mistreatment or Republican nominees did not justify Republican payback during the Clinton presidency, and Republican malfeasance does not justify Democratic payback since.

However one believes the process should be reformed, there is a window for meaningful reform of the confirmation process. At present, neither party is particularly interested in endorsing "neutral" rules for the process. Senator Leahy, for example, proposed rles for ensuring quick consideration of judicial nominees during the Clinton Administration, but he would not support (let alone sponsor) that legislation today. The only real hope is for a majority of Senators to endorse a set of neutral procedures that will take effect after an intervening election -- preferably one far enough in the future that the outcome is indeterminate (e.g. an agreement in early 2007 to take effect in January 2009). In this way, both parties could endorse the reforms on their merits, rather than on their likely effect on either party's nominees. Similar ideas have been floated in the past, but there have not been many takers in the Senate.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Kennedy Correction:
  2. Wittes on Reforming the Confirmation Process:
  3. Senator Kennedy Assails Alito and Roberts: