Few institutions are as critical to a well-functioning democracy as an independent judiciary. And so at the federal level the job comes with life tenure.
While there is a kind of to-the-victor-belong-the-spoils element to judicial nominations, it also is crucial that such appointments are first rate – regardless of a nominee’s ideological bent – especially at the district court level, where experience is important.
In the past week three potential judicial clunkers put forward by the Trump administration have been withdrawn – and the nation is better for that.
The most visible, public humiliation was that of Matthew Petersen, nominated to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who was whittled down to size by U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., in what became a viral video of Petersen failing to answer any of Kennedy’s questions about his knowledge of the law.
That Petersen was a former colleague on the Federal Election Commission of White House counsel Don McGahn seemed to be his chief qualification.
“I had hoped my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my two worst minutes on television,” Petersen wrote in a letter to Trump, asking that his nomination be withdrawn.
Last week, the White House withdrew two other nominations at the request of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa. Brett Talley, 36, nominated for the court in Alabama, a speechwriter for Republican candidates and a writer of horror novels, had been rated not qualified by the American Bar Association. He also happens to be the husband of McGahn’s chief of staff.
Jeff Mateer, nominated for the Eastern District of Texas, had made some speeches in which he equated same-sex marriage with polygamy and described transgender children as proof of “Satan’s plan.”
That the nominations of all three men are now history is a relief – assuming the Trump administration takes to heart the lesson that the vetting process is not to be taken lightly. And theirs leaves much to be desired.