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Document Type

Note

Publication Date

Fall 2012

Publication Citation

87 Indiana Law Journal 1791 (2012)

Abstract

In 1995, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School dubbed the Supreme Court confirmation hearings “vapid and hollow” and added that they, as implemented, “serve little educative function, except perhaps to reinforce lessons of cynicism that citizens often glean from government.” Ironically, this same law professor, Elena Kagan, later endured the confirmation hearings as a nominee and currently sits as the 112th Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. While she may be one of the few to ever reach a seat on the High Court, she is not alone in her assessment of the Supreme Court’s lackluster confirmation process. Other legal scholars have called the process a complete mess and likened it to a circus or a kabuki dance.

Although there are multiple aspects of the confirmation process that could use reform, this Note draws attention to one flaw of the confirmation hearings that many overlook—members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (the “Committee”) use the confirmation hearings as a forum to voice their own political beliefs instead of focusing their undivided attention on the qualifications of the nominee. Since senators do not focus entirely on the nominee, they are not thoroughly examining the nominee’s fitness for the Court. As nationally televised events, it only follows that senators use the confirmation hearings as a medium to speak to theirconstituents. One may ask why this matters or point out that one would expect this of senators; after all, senators constantly have their campaigning caps on, especially when receiving national attention. However, these responses ignore the negative effects of senators placing themselves, rather than the nominees, in the confirmation hearings’ limelight. If the purpose of confirmation hearings is to determine the qualifications of a nominee and ensure that he or she is fit for the Court, then this purpose goes unfulfilled if constituents influence senators’ lines of questioning. Senators consume themselves with how their constituents back home will view their questioning and fail to focus on what is at stake—the confirmation of the nation’s next Supreme Court justice. If the purpose of confirmation hearings is to evaluate the nominee, then this purpose would best be served by having undivided attention focused on the nominee and his or her answers. If senators have an ulterior motive—engaging in an open dialogue with their constituents—then the confirmation process does not effectively serve its primary purpose.

Part I of this Note investigates the confirmation and appointment power that the Constitution delegates to the Senate. Part II provides a detailed history of the confirmation process and its dramatic evolution over the last century, which is crucial in order to fully comprehend today’s process and its problems. Part III, after examining the media’s role within the confirmation process and the publicity that the confirmation hearings attract, offers proof that senators are cognizant of their national audience and highlights specific examples of senators addressing their constituents via the confirmation hearings. Part IV concludes by setting forth three possible solutions to the overarching problem: implementing anonymous questioning of the nominees through Committee representatives; appointing experts to question the nominees in the senators’ places; and replacing video recording of the hearings with audio recording.

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