Trump nominee Matthew Petersen is probably the single most ill-prepared and inexperienced person considered for any federal position in recent times
It is perhaps understandable that people focus on the global impact of a reckless, petulant and ignorant president. North Korea, Iran, global warming, Jerusalem: there’s plenty to keep you awake at night if you’re at all concerned about the world burning.
But all that means we overlook the smaller fires that will burn for a lifetime, destroying communities and citizens closer to home.
Because it turns out that a boneheaded president has a remarkable ability to nominate boneheaded federal judges who will serve an unlimited term as they undermine public confidence in justice and government. Much like the man who put their names forward in the first place.
For now the focus is on the single most ill-prepared and inexperienced nominee for any federal position in recent times: Matthew Petersen.
Petersen is nominated for a lifetime’s job as a US district judge in Washington DC, where the courts regularly shape the conduct of the federal government.
This columnist may have no legal qualifications whatsoever. But having sat in the E Barrett Prettyman courthouse for months on end, it is our learned opinion that Petersen is an embarrassing fool who has no business wearing a judge’s robes.
Petersen wilted in the face of the simple and polite questioning by Senator John Kennedy, a Trump-supporting Republican from Louisiana, not previously known as a leader of the vast leftwing conspiracy.
Petersen has served as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, which explains a lot about the FEC’s reputation for almost complete uselessness. A campaign finance lawyer by experience, Petersen has far less of a claim to a job on the federal bench than Judge Judy. (Note to the White House: this is not a suggestion to nominate Judge Judy.)
How can we tell? Kennedy found his target as he addressed several nominees with an innocent question about whether anyone had not tried a case in a courtroom. Petersen raised his hand. It started to go downhill from there.
Petersen had never tried a case in any court, in front of a jury or otherwise. Never taken a deposition on his own. Never argued a motion in court. Couldn’t answer basic questions about accepting evidence in court.
“Do you know what a motion in limine is?” asked Kennedy, citing one of the most basic motions to exclude evidence before trial.
“I haven’t had to, again, do a deep dive,” fumbled the nominee. “And I understand, and I appreciate this line of questioning. I understand the challenge that would be ahead of me if I were fortunate enough to become a district court judge. I understand that the path that many successful district court judges have taken has been a different one than I have taken. But as I mentioned in my earlier answer, I believe that the path that I have taken to be one who’s been in a decision-making role in somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 enforcement matters, overseen I don’t know how many cases in federal court …”
At this point, the senator cut off the poor nominee, whose earnest efforts to justify his own inadequacies were wasting precious time.
It’s worth making the blindingly obvious hypothetical comparison to a notional nominee under the last president. Let’s say Barack Obama had put forward an utterly unqualified person for a lifetime judge’s job – someone so useless that they hadn’t even boned up on basic legal terms any judge would need to know. And let’s say that nominee was a person of color. What do you think the public reaction would be?
Now is the time to stand back and admire in all its glory the sight of the white male equivalent in the Trump era. In spite of his obvious ignorance, Petersen believes he can still do the job because he’s been a decision-maker on several hundred legal matters and court cases. You can only wonder how awesome those decisions have been.
You can also only wonder at the American Bar Association, which rated Petersen as “qualified” to be a federal judge. Not that the ABA’s ratings matter to Trump, who has barreled ahead with his own nominees regardless of their ratings.
For what it’s worth, the ABA unanimously rated another of Trump’s nominees as “not qualified” because he was a 36-year-old blogger with a strong ideological bent and no trial experience: Brett Talley. He was the fourth Trump nominee the ABA found to be devoid of judicial merit. Talley is also married to a White House lawyer, by some strange coincidence.
On the other hand, Talley did blog about his total support – “financially, politically and intellectually” – for the National Rifle Association just one month after the massacre of elementary schoolchildren at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. In his confirmation hearings, Talley refused to recuse himself from cases involving gun violence.
Last month the Republican-led Senate judiciary committee confirmed him to a lifetime job as a judge in Alabama.
His nomination was later withdrawn.
Why is Trump nominating such judicial idiots? Because for the ideologically-driven core of his conservative base, the courts are a generational battleground where the future of the United States can be shaped for a lifetime.
Under the pretense of opposing “activist” judges, the rightwing ideologues and demagogues have engaged in several decades of parachuting their own activists into the judicial system, from the supreme court on down.
Under the pretense of Senate etiquette, Republican leaders refused to consider Obama’s nominees during the last year of his presidency. For their part, Democrats blocked George W Bush’s nominees when they controlled the Senate in Bush’s final two years.
By now, it may be impossible to stop the Senate politicking around judicial nominees. There’s just too much bad blood. But it should be possible to stop the obviously incompetent nominees from getting considered in the first place.
That responsibility lies with the Trump White House and the justice department under Jeff Sessions. Which are both otherwise showing such a great respect for the rule of law, whether it involves firing the FBI director, preventing Trump’s own conflicts of interest, or investigating Russian interference in US elections.
They say you get the leaders you deserve. But in the case of Trump’s judicial nominees, who will serve long after he leaves office, the country clearly deserves a lot better.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010