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GOOD QUESTIONS AND ACTUAL ANSWERS

Ever since nominees to the Supreme Court started to subject themselves to comprehensive grilling in 1939, their confirmation hearings have been dismissed by the legal elite as an empty charade. - A 35-year-old lawyer named William H. Rehnquist, who would go on to become chief justice of the United States, said as much in the Harvard Law Record in 1959. Four decades later, a 35-year-old law professor named Elena Kagan, whose confirmation hearings began Monday, agreed in the University of Chicago Law Review. - But a new study, based on an analysis of every question asked and every answer given at Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the last 70 years, shows that the hearings often address real substance, illuminate the spirit of their times and change with shifts in partisan alignments and the demographic characteristics of nominees. - The study, by Paul M. Collins Jr., an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas, and Lori A. Ringhand, an associate professor of law at the University of Georgia, also refutes the common mistaken belief that questions about abortion rights have played a dominant role in confirmation hearings since Roe vs. Wade was decided in 1973. And it finds that female and minority nominees are questioned more closely than white male ones. - Perhaps surprisingly, a second recent study by two political scientists found that "the overall level of candor has actually been fairly high." - Most nominees answer "between 60 and 70 percent of their questions in a fully forthcoming manner," the study, by Dion Farganis of Elon University in North Carolina and Justin Wedeking of the University of Kentucky, concluded.

Adam Liptak, New York Times

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