Two Democratic senators said today they're not happy with how the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees.
As the committee prepared to vote on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) bemoaned what he called a "familiar pattern" in confirmation hearings. Nominees, he said, take the "path of least resistance" when they refuse to answer almost all of senators' questions about the substance of law.
"We cannot ask nominees to disclose how they would rule on cases that might come before them, but it is reasonable for us to ask their opinions on past Supreme Court decisions," said Kohl, the second most-senior Democrat on the committee.
Kohl, who supports Sotomayor's nomination, said his comments were not directed only at her, but at all nominees in recent years and at the process itself.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said the process fails to educate either the public or the Senate about a nominee. It makes no sense, he said, that the only person in the United States who cannot express an opinion on recent Supreme Court rulings "is the person from whom the public most needs to hear it."
"These hearings have become little more than theater," Feingold said, "where senators try to ask clever questions and nominees try to come up with clever answers."
Neither Feingold nor Kohl proposed specific changes.
As The National Law Journal reported this month, the battle over what questions can be asked and answered at confirmation hearings has continued for almost a century. Proposed changes — such as having a senior staff person question the nominee — have gained little momentum.
UPDATE (11:21 a.m.): Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) agrees. "We need to let judges let us know what they really think," he said.