Confirmation Hearings Prove Mostly Political

While the U.S. Senate is now unable to make use of the filibuster to delay judicial nominees to federal courts, they must still undergo a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Assistant Professor of Government Logan Dancey and two colleagues write in the London School of Economics U.S. Politics blog that the political environment is a better predictor of the hearing’s content and questions than the characteristics of the nominee. Nominees who face confirmation hearings when the White House and Senate are controlled by different parties are more likely to face questions on crime, abortion, civil rights and on their judicial philosophy. The blog post was based on findings in a paper the three published this month in American Politics Research.

“What we found is that divided government … consistently mattered for the types of questions a nominee faced,” wrote Dancey and colleagues Kjersten R. Nelson of North Dakota State University and Eve M. Ringsmuth of Oklahoma State University.

The paper was based on research into confirmation hearings for more than 500 district court nominees from 1993 to 2008 (during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies).

“Times of heightened political competition (e.g., divided government and presidential election years) lead to more ideologically charged questions,” the group writes. “In addition, senators’ questions are often focused on issues known to be of concern to attentive interest groups. The hearings may thus simply be another venue for senators to engage in partisan and ideological position taking.”