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 start 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.
Here is the abstract of the paper:
This paper examines the questions asked and answers given by every Supreme Court nominee who has appeared to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee since 1939. In doing so, it uses a new dataset developed by the authors. This database, which provides a much-needed empirical foundation for scholarship in emerging areas of constitutional law and political science, captures all of the statements made at the hearings and codes these comments by issue area, subissue area, party of the appointing president, and party of the questioning senator. The dataset allows us to quantify for the fist time such things as which issues are most frequently discussed at the hearings, whether those issues have changed over time, and whether they vary depending on the party of the appointing president and the party of the questioning senator. We also investigate if questioning patterns differ depending on the race or gender of the nominee. Some of our results are unsurprising: for example, the hearings have become longer. Others, however, challenge conventional wisdom: the Bork hearing is less of an outlier in several ways than is frequently assumed, and abortion has not dominated the hearings. We also discover that there is issue area variation over time, and that there are notable disparities in the issues addressed by Democratic versus Republican senators. Finally, we find that female and minority nominees face a significantly different hearing environment than do white male nominees.