A Brief Glossary for Trump's Judicial Nominees

What to memorize for the confirmation hearing

Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana pictured at a Judiciary Committee hearing
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, pictured at a Judiciary Committee hearing last month, questioned Trump nominee Matthew Petersen. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

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.

Motion in limine: shaken, then poured, with a twist. See also motion in olivine

Writ: a judicial order on paper. See also spoke

Hearsay: See theresay

Lawsuit: court clothing

Class action: a custom-tailored lawsuit

Diversity jurisdiction: a challenge to affirmative action

Injunction: at the crossroads

Judicial review: the number of “likes” on a judicial Twitter feed

Affidavit: Solomon and later Hebrew kings

Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence: the stuff clerks read

Pullman abstention: when a judge doesn’t take the sleeper car in order to save money

Younger abstention: when the clerks also don’t take the sleeper

Colorado River abstention: when the judge also won’t take a raft trip

Chevron deference: the proper treatment of an active-duty non-commissioned officer

Auer deference: when a judge pretends to listen for up to 60 minutes

Recusal: a brief judicial nap after an Auer deference

Sidebar: the liquor stash near the courtroom

Erie doctrine: the principle that testimony by ghosts is inadmissible

Batson hearing: a proceeding to determine sanity. See generally belfry

In camera: photographic evidence

In rem: evidence from dreams

Bench trial: the act of shopping for a new judge chair

Res judicata: a clerks’ marathon

Estoppel: the finish of res judicata

Marbury v. Madison: the first NCAA national football championship