Earlier this year, at a Princeton conference on the politics of judicial nominations, Henry Saad, a former Michigan court of appeals judge whose nomination to the Sixth Circuit was filibustered under George W. Bush, proposed a number of process reforms. Saad would make it a violation of judicial ethics for nominees to give their opinions about a case, while making hearings untelevised, with questions submitted in writing, restricted to professional qualifications, and asked by the chief counsel for each party’s judiciary committee members.
Some congressional committees allow this in other contexts, and while it didn’t seem to work very well for Republicans in the supplemental hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, that was largely a function of the five-minute increments the counsel questioning was forced into. Any personal information or ethical concerns could then be handled in the confidential session that the Senate Judiciary Committee already has to discuss the required FBI background check and other sensitive matters.
These sorts of post-nomination proposals are healthy, because they target the spectacle that confirmations have become, with senators either not equipped to handle the required lines of questioning or grandstanding to produce a gotcha moment, or at least B-roll for campaign videos. “It’s like testifying in a restaurant,” quips former White House counsel Don McGahn, with photographers clicking away in front and protesters haranguing in the back. And it’s not like we learn anything about nominees, who are now coached to avoid saying anything newsworthy.