How To Make Judicial Confirmation Hearings Interesting

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 13, 2009

I am surprised that no one has yet adopted Randy Barnett’s idea:

Supreme Court confirmation hearings do not have to be about either results or nothing. They could be about clauses, not cases. Instead of asking nominees how they would decide particular cases, ask them to explain what they think the various clauses of the Constitution mean. Does the Second Amendment protect an individual right to arms? What was the original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment? (Hint: It included an individual right to arms.) Does the 14th Amendment “incorporate” the Bill of Rights and, if so, how and why? Does the Ninth Amendment protect judicially enforceable unenumerated rights? Does the Necessary and Proper Clause delegate unlimited discretion to Congress? Where in the text of the Constitution is the so-called Spending Power (by which Congress claims the power to spend tax revenue on anything it wants) and does it have any enforceable limits?

Don’t ask how the meaning of these clauses should be applied in particular circumstances. Just ask about the meaning itself and how it should be ascertained. Do nominees think they are bound by the original public meaning of the text? Even those who deny this still typically claim that original meaning is a “factor” or starting point. If so, what other factors do they think a justice should rely on to “interpret” the meaning of the text? Even asking whether “We the People” in the U.S. Constitution originally included blacks and slaves — as abolitionists like Lysander Spooner and Frederick Douglass contended, or not as Chief Justice Roger Taney claimed in Dred Scott v. Sandford — will tell us much about a nominee’s approach to constitutional interpretation. Given that this is hardly a case that will come before them, on what grounds could nominees refuse to answer such questions?

Of course, inquiring into clauses not cases would require senators to know something about the original meaning of the Constitution. Do they? It would be interesting to hear what Sen. Al Franken thinks about such matters, but no more so than any other member of the Judiciary Committee. Such a hearing would not only be entertaining, it would be informative and educational. After all, it would be about the meaning of the Constitution, which is to say it would be about something.

Sonia Sotomayor is prepared to refrain from commenting on cases, with the rationale being that such comments, if offered, would serve to prejudice her in the event that similar cases come before her as a Justice. That’s fine and understandable. But there is nothing wrong with asking her to comment on the meaning of the Constitution. If she fails to do that, she would be genuinely unresponsive to the questions before her, and would give Senators a genuine reason to vote against her nomination.

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