Matthew Spencer Peterson’s judicial confirmation started out painful and then got worse when Peterson couldn’t answer basic questions about the legal process. Peterson flubbed questions about motions, the Daubert standard and abstention as Senator John Kennedy quizzed the nominee on his knowledge of basic legal terms. Peterson hemmed and hawed and then admitted that he doesn’t have a background in litigation. Peterson also admitted that he hasn’t ever conducted a jury trial or even argued a motion in court. The exchange has since gone viral.
Peterson served as President of the Federal Election Commission in 2016 under U.S. President Barack Obama and in 2010 under George W. Bush. He graduated from Brigham Young University and the University of Virginia’s School of Law. In addition to his work at the FEC, Peterson has other ties to politics, serving as an attorney for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration. He practiced election law in private practice with a law firm in Washington DC.
Critics say that Peterson’s performance at the December 13, 2017 confirmation hearing calls into question his qualifications to serve as a federal judge. Peterson disagrees. He says that his background as a decision maker should be sufficient even if he doesn’t know basic terms about courts and cases.
Peterson’s case is one example of what critics say is a larger problem about the qualifications of judges. They say that it’s too easy to become a judge without having practical, trial experience to effectively run a court and make wise decisions. Critics question whether it’s a good idea to have a judge deciding motions when they’ve never argued a motion themselves.
Critics say that judges shouldn’t be getting up to speed using real cases. They argue that judges should come to the bench able to do the job effectively from the first day. Some say that it’s a miscarriage of justice to consider political loyalty and experience in politics when it’s time to choose judges.
Members of the public are often surprised to learn that judges don’t have to have a background in the courtroom in order to sit on the bench. They don’t need to have even represented a client in court. Judges are either elected or appointed, and there’s no minimum qualifications beyond a law degree and a bar license. Some local magistrates don’t even need those minimal qualifications. Soon, it’ll be up to the Senate to decide if Peterson’s qualifications make the grade.