This Trump judicial nominee’s glaring lack of legal knowledge is just the tip of the iceberg

Trump judicial nominee Matthew Petersen. CREDIT: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing screenshot

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, a panel of five Trump nominees for lifetime appointments to federal judgeships were interviewed simultaneously about their qualifications. A video, posted Thursday by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), showed that the process did not go well for one of them.

Matthew S. Petersen, Trump’s pick to be a United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, was the only one who raised his hand when Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) asked if any of the five had “never tried a case to verdict in a courtroom.” He then confessed that he also never participated a jury, criminal, or civil trial, in a state or federal court, had taken less than 10 depositions, and had never argued a motion in state or federal court.

Kennedy, a former executive editor of the Virginia Law Review who has been critical of some of Trump’s previous judicial nominees, then used his allotted five minutes to ask Petersen basic questions about federal law and Petersen indicated that he did not know the answers:

Kennedy: Do you know what a motion in limine is?

Petersen: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition, right here at the table.

Kennedy: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?

Petersen: I’ve heard of it, but again.

Kennedy: How about the Pullman abstention doctrine? You all see that a lot in federal court.

Kennedy’s questions involved basic legal issues that Petersen would confront on a daily basis if confirmed to the federal bench. A motion in limine, which is a pre-trial motion to exclude certain evidence, would be familiar to most anyone who has graduated from law school.


The reason that Petersen lacked this basic knowledge of the law is that instead of working in a position that would prepare him for a lifetime bench appointment, he has perused another career before this point — fighting against campaign finance law enforcement.

For several years, he worked as a chief counsel to the Republicans on the Committee on House Administration and Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, the committees that oversee campaign finance law and election administration.  Since the summer of 2008, he has been one of three Republican commissioners on the six-member Federal Election Commission.

Over that time, the three member Republican bloc regularly forced deadlocks to block enforcement of campaign finance laws, creating a historic level of gridlock at the agency. As a result, much of the campaign law became virtually unenforced and moneyed interests — including foreign powers — are now able to influence federal elections unimpeded. The trio was so obstinate that the commission actually even deadlocked on whether to serve bagels or donuts at their 40th anniversary celebration.

Campaign finance reform groups oppose the nomination, noting that the District Court for the District of Columbia hears a large number of campaign finance-related cases and that Petersen’s “‘accomplishments’ include numerous campaign organizations operating inappropriately as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations; workplace political coercion; increasing cooperation between candidates and the allegedly independent Super PACS supporting them; and donors unlawfully hiding their identities via pass-through LLCs.”

Notably, Trump’s White House Counsel, who is leading Trump’s effort to pack the federal judiciary with right-wing judges is Don McGahn who, from 2008 to 2013, was also a Republican Commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, working alongside Petersen in the efforts.

While Kennedy’s grilling on Wednesday undermined Petersen’s credibility and demonstrated his lack of qualifications for a federal judgeship, it remains to be seen whether it will stop him a lifetime post. On Tuesday, the Senate Republican majority confirmed — on party lines — a judicial nominee unanimously rated as “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.

UPDATE 12/18/17: Petersen withdrew his name from further consideration for the judgeship, saying his nomination “has become a distraction.”

This post has been updated to include information about campaign finance reform group opposition to the nomination.