Washington • A video of Federal Election Commissioner Matthew Petersen, a former staffer to the late Sen. Bob Bennett and a graduate of Brigham Young University, being questioned about a possible judgeship has gone viral after he failed to answer several queries by a Republican senator about rudimentary law.
Petersen — who earned a bachelor’s degree from BYU in 1996, got his law degree from the University of Virginia and worked for Bennett on the Senate Rules Committee — is a nominee for the federal court for the District of Columbia and faced senators for a confirmation hearing Thursday.
It didn’t go well.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked a panel of judicial nominees if they had never tried a case in a courtroom. Petersen’s was the only hand to raise.
“Have you ever tried a jury trial?” Kennedy asked.
“I have not,” Petersen replied.
It didn’t get much better in the video, watched more than 5 million times at the latest count.
Petersen, who is a former chairman of the FEC, which has deadlocked on many major decisions in recent years, failed to answer many of Kennedy’s questions, including whether he had read the federal rules on evidentiary proceedings or other commonplace rules a judge would need to know.
“When’s the last time you read the rules of civil procedure?” Kennedy asked.
“Well,” Petersen said, “the rules of federal procedure, um, in my current position I don’t need to stay as, you know, invested in those on a day-to-day basis but I do try to keep up to speed.”
He’d never taken a deposition by himself, he acknowledged. When Kennedy pressed if Petersen was aware of what a motion in limine is, the judicial nominee said essentially he would have a lot to learn as a new judge.
“I would probably not be able to give you a good definition right here at the table,” he said.
A motion in limine is a standard rule for trials about whether certain evidence can be produced.
“Lord above. This sends chills up my spine,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., tweeted about that moment. “A nominee to be a TRIAL JUDGE doesn’t even know what a motion in limine is. Never taken a deposition. Never argued a motion.”
Kennedy, who previously practiced law, said Friday that he is a big supporter of President Donald Trump and has backed his nominees, “but I don’t blindly support them.”
“I ask questions that I expect them to be able to answer,” the senator said in statement. “In doing so, I’m just doing my job. That’s why we have a Madisonian-inspired separation of powers. We need checks and balances so that we can serve the American people well.”
Matthew Sanderson, a partner at the law firm of Caplin and Drysdale who has known Petersen and interacted with him at FEC proceedings, said Friday that the video clip is unfair to the judicial nominee who has been rated as qualified by the American Bar Association.
Sanderson said Kennedy’s line of questioning has more to do with a perceived slight by Trump choosing a nominee for the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, rather than anything to do with Petersen.
“Matt went into the interview saying he was not a litigator but then was asked if he’s tried a case in state court or federal court,” Sanderson said. “It’s all about [Kennedy] getting back at President Trump.”
Sanderson, an election law attorney, called Kennedy’s grilling of Petersen a “petty gesture.”
“Across the board, [Petersen] is viewed as a thoughtful intelligent, ethical decision-maker,” Sanderson said. “Senator Kennedy’s line of questioning presupposes that every federal judge should be a litigator.”