Matthew S.] Petersen, a lawyer serving on the Federal Election Commission, was one of five President Trump judicial nominees to be questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Senator John N. Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, subjected Petersen to questions regarding basic litigation law, such as the Daubert standard, which has to do with qualifying expert witness testimony, the definition of a motion in limine, and several other bits of information a junior litigator would have to have in his memory banks. The potential judge told the Senator that he had never tried a case or argued a motion in court. He said he last read the Federal Rules of evidence in law school. “I understand that the path that many successful district court judges have taken has been a different one than I’ve taken,” Petersen said.
Naturally, being a Trump nominee, Petersen is being widely mocked in the news media and by Democrats. Some legal experts have been more sympathetic, like Judge Wayne R. Andersen, who was a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois for nearly 20 years. He told reporters that there was a continuing debate within the legal profession about the qualifications required of a trial judge, saying, “Anyone who steps to the federal bench lacks a huge amount of federal experience necessary to do the job,” and that Senator Kennedy’s questions, while fair, “would eliminate 80 percent of the nation’s lawyers and many of the most talented lawyers.”
Lawyer/Blogger John Hinderaker wrote in part,
The lawyers who have the most thorough understanding of substantive areas of the law–real estate, taxes, corporate governance and so on–are generally not litigators. Do we really want to say that all of these non-litigators–the majority of lawyers–are unfit to be trial judges?…does it mean that one of my non-litigator partners would be disqualified from such an appointment, no matter how good a lawyer he or she might be? I don’t think so.
… Newly-appointed judges attend “judge school,” where they are taught the finer points of the rules of evidence….Most lawyers who are appointed to the bench in both federal and state courts have backgrounds in litigation. No doubt that is appropriate. However, it is by no means rare for non-litigator lawyers to be appointed, or win election, to the bench. In my opinion, that is a good thing. I don’t see why a minority of lawyers–litigators–should have a monopoly on the bench. I don’t know whether Matthew Petersen will make a good judge or not. But in my view, he doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed because his highly-successful law career has been conducted outside of the courtroom.
I agree; he shouldn’t be ridiculed for that.
However, if you are nominated for a high-profile and important job that you know—and you have an obligation to know—that you have less than the ideal experience for, and yet you believe you can do the job competently given diligent study and preparation—and if you don’t believe that, you are ethically obligated not to accept the nomination—then you demonstrate your good faith, responsibility and diligence, not to mention common sense and basic survival instincts, by anticipating likely areas where your knowledge is lacking. You set out to educate yourself before being grilled in a formal hearing. Not doing so is arrogant. Not doing so is incompetent. Not doing so is lazy.
Not doing so is incredibly stupid. It is also unfair to the individual who showed faith in him by nominating him despite his lack of relevant experience.
For all of this Petersen richly deserves to be, if not ridiculed, severely criticized.
UPDATE (12/18/17): Petersen withdrew from consideration.