Earlier this week, we discussed “advice and consent.”  Can Senators legitimately ask a Supreme Court nominee about a hot button issue and expect a direct answer? Do Senators have the right to vote up or down on a particular nominee for purely political reasons?

Now we turn from the question of what the confirmation process should be to the issue of how the process operates in practice. Is the widely held view that hearings have become a substance-free charade in the years since the Bork nomination supported by the evidence? What subjects are Senators asking about, and are white, male nominees treated differently from women and African-American nominees? Two timely studies attempt to shed some light on these questions.

Professors Dian Farganis and Justin Wedeking, of Elon University and the University of Kentucky, respectively, focus on how responsive nominees are to Senators’ questions in their study, No Hints, No Forecasts, No Previews: Analyzing Supreme Court Nominee Evasiveness, 1955-2009.  Farganis and Wedeking reviewed the transcripts of every Supreme Court confirmation hearing since 1955 (Justice John Harlan), coding the type of question asked, the responsiveness of the nominee’s answer, and the reasons given by the nominee for not answering more fully.

In general, the professors found that the popular model of nominees trying to avoid nearly all the Senators’ questions was not supported by the transcripts: they consistently ranked nominees’ answers as “very forthcoming” for between sixty and eighty percent of all questions.  They argue that the perception that hearings have become a multi-day exercise in nominees avoiding substantive responses is likely caused by two factors.

First, the professors found that the percentage of questions addressing nominees’ opinions and interpretations – especially of hot-button issues – has increased over time, and such viewpoint questions are more likely to be partially or fully evaded than factual questions.

Second, the researchers observed an increasing trend in recent years of nominees being more explicit about declining to answer a question, most often because they worry that a particular issue might come before the Court. This second trend is most famously illustrated by Justice Scalia’s reluctance to answer questions from Senators Strom Thurmond and Arlen Specter [pdf – pp. 33-34, 86]  during his 1986 confirmation hearing about whether he considered Marbury v. Madison to be settled law.

The second study, May It Please the Senate: An Empirical Analysis of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings of Supreme Court Nominees, 1939-2009comes from Professors Lori Ringhand and Paul Collins, of the University of Georgia Law School and the University of North Texas, respectively. Working from a database stretching back to the 1939 hearing for Justice Felix Frankfurter, Ringhand and Collins analyzed the topics addressed in the hearings. The results suggest that over the past seventy years, the hearings have had far more to do with politics and popular perceptions of the Court than they have with the Court’s actual day-to-day workload.

The biggest single group of substantive exchanges involved civil rights issues – race, gender and sexual orientation discrimination; freedom of speech and religion, and the right to privacy. Questions about nominees’ judicial philosophy occur less than half as often, and inquiries about statutory interpretation – what the Court spends much of its time doing – account for only about one percent of all exchanges. Interestingly, the study shows that Senators’ questioning of Judge Robert Bork was no more dominated by questions about his judicial philosophy than a number of other nominees’ hearings have been.

The researchers’ analysis of the impact of nominee race and gender on Senators’ examinations has received the most attention in the days since May It Please the Senate was posted, including from the New York Times the Volokh Conspiracy and PrawfsBlawg. According to the professors, minority candidates receive more questions about civil rights, judicial philosophy and criminal justice, and fewer about issues like federalism and statutory interpretation. Female nominees, on the other hand, receive fewer questions about civil rights, but more than men regarding judicial philosophy and federalism.

Both No Hints and May It Please the Senate are interesting reads, and important contributions to the study of politics’ impact on constitutional law. Many follow-up questions – some of which are mentioned in the studies themselves – suggest themselves for further research.

  • For example, Professors Ringhand and Collins break down their subject categories in the aggregate, arguing, for example that issues like abortion and the right to bear arms have not dominated the hearings; a similar breakdown along party lines might prove interesting.
  • Professors Farganis and Wedeking show that nominees’ evasiveness tends to increase in response to viewpoint questions, but it might be useful to analyze that data further by specific issues and sub-issues.
  • Both studies could throw additional light on the problems of twentieth and twenty-first century constitutional development by further analyzing their data with respect to the makeup of Congress at the time of each hearing, the party of the President, and the nature of the relationship between the Congress and the President.
  • Finally, it would be interesting to tie the professors’ results with respect to specific nominees back into the nominees’ performance on the Court, and the group dynamic of the Courts on which they served.

UPDATE: Professors Farganis and Wedeking have posted an update to their paper analyzing the responses given by Solicitor General Kagan to Senators’ questions during her confirmation hearings.