Matthew Petersen, a lawyer and member of the Federal Election Commission, recently struggled to answer basic questions about trial procedure (for example, “What is a motion in limine?”) at a hearing on his nomination to serve as a U.S. district judge. The resulting viral video is heartrending; watching it calls to mind Oscar Wilde’s perhaps apocryphal remark about a famous scene in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
But Petersen’s ordeal is hardly his fault: Judicial nominations today seem to depend more on ideological reliability than what might once have been called “legal skills.” Thus, a potential nominee must concentrate on amassing political and ideological credentials, and expecting him or her to have legal knowledge or experience also is hardly fair. There are, after all, only 24 hours in a day.
The true blame for Petersen’s agony, then, lies with his White House handlers, who did not brief him on the kinds of questions he could expect from senators. Moved like Wilde to pity at the sight of this unfortunate orphan’s sufferings, I hereby suggest that future nominees study the following glossary, which will equip them to answer most questions they are likely to be asked. It’s also useful for impressing people at parties.