A video of a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing went viral recently. The video showed Matthew Petersen, a native Utahn and judicial nominee for the D.C. District Court, acknowledging that he had never tried a case and that he was unfamiliar with certain aspects of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and related trial-procedure doctrines. Many characterized the video as an emblem of how President Trump’s judicial nominees are unqualified for their proposed positions.
While I cannot speak to the credentials of the president’s other judicial nominees, I can offer a firsthand perspective on Mr. Petersen’s qualifications that spans longer than a four-minute video snippet. I believe the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary was correct when it unanimously rated him as “Qualified.”
I have known Mr. Petersen personally and professionally for many years, closely observing and sometimes practicing before him in his current position as a commissioner at the Federal Election Commission. Frankly, I do not share Mr. Petersen’s views on certain facets of campaign finance regulation, but I can say without reservation that he is a thoughtful and ethical decision-maker who has considerable ability to analyze statutes, weigh facts, synthesize jurisprudence and apply a complicated regulatory regime. These are all core responsibilities of a federal judge. And Mr. Petersen’s nine years as a commissioner also give him an exceptional level of experience with administrative law, which would make up a sizable part of his docket if he were to be confirmed for a seat on the D.C. District Court.
To be sure, Mr. Petersen would ultimately need to master the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and related procedural doctrines as a federal judge. He is not a litigator by background and would therefore have work to do on that front, as he recognized before and during his recent confirmation hearing. But his performance on a random “pop quiz” about the Younger Abstention Doctrine and other matters that would fall outside the knowledge base of a non-litigator should not be taken as an indication that he will never be adroit in applying those concepts and should not overshadow the fact that he is eminently qualified to serve as a federal judge in many other ways.
Not all judges should be cut from the same cloth. Not all judges need to be prior litigators. Our federal judiciary benefits from the service of individuals who come from diverse backgrounds and offer different strengths. Based on my own personal experience, I think the D.C. District Court would benefit from having the substantial ability and knowledge that Matthew Petersen has accrued during the course of his distinguished legal career.
Matthew T. Sanderson is a member of the law firm Caplin & Drysdale, chartered in Washington, D.C.