A Trump Judicial Nominee Struggled to Answer Basic Legal Questions Before Senate Committee

Trump judicial nominee Matthew Spencer can't answer basic legal questions
(Photo by Screenshot: Senate.Gov)

President Trump has already taken heat for nominating a ghost hunting fledgling lawyer who had never tried a case and was deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association for a federal judgeship. The president’s judgement is being called into question again after an excruciating video went viral of district court judge nominee, Federal Election Commissioner Matthew Spencer Petersen, struggling to answer basic legal questions while appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on December 13.

Like Brett Talley–the ghostbuster who espoused revisionist Ku Klux Klan history on internet messageboards, didn’t disclose that he was married to a Trump aide, and eventually withdrew from his judicial nomination–Petersen has never tried a case. He admitted as much when Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) asked if any of the nominees on the panel had “not tried a case to verdict in a courtroom?”  Petersen raised his hand, and the exchange got progressively worse from there. The painful clip went viral after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) shared video of a conversation that plays out like a teacher catching a student trying to bluff his way through a book report on a novel he hadn’t read.

Kennedy sounds increasingly incredulous as he asks Petersen about his experience with such basic legal procedures as taking a deposition. From Washington Post:

KENNEDY: Have you ever taken a deposition?

PETERSEN: I was involved in taking depositions when I was an associate at Wiley Rein when I first came out of law school. But that was —

KENNEDY: How many depositions?

PETERSEN: I’d be struggling to remember.

KENNEDY: Less than 10?


KENNEDY: Less than 5?

PETERSEN: (Pauses) Probably somewhere in that range.

KENNEDY: Have you ever tried a – taken a deposition by yourself?

PETERSEN: I believe not – no.

The 1999 University of Virginia Law School graduate was appointed to the FEC by George W. Bush in 2008. Prior to that, he briefly served as counsel to the RNC as well as counsel to two congressional panels. Legal experts cited by WaPo do not judge his performance in front of the Senate Judiciary kindly:

“Don’t want to beat up on the guy but the questions he was being asked could be answered by a second year law student,” wrote Aderson Francois, a professor at Georgetown Law. “Even if you know zero about evidence the one doctrine every law student knows is Daubert because it’s a very famous case about standard to admit expert testimony.”

Anthony Michael Kreis, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said it was unreasonable to expect Petersen to have recently studied the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a lengthy and complex document. “But,” Kreis added, “if you have little or no trial experience, I’d hope you could speak a little bit about the law with some degree of sophistication. Daubert is pretty basic.”


Oddly enough, Petersen was deemed “qualified” for a judgeship by the ABA.

One point in Petersen’s favor is that he shook his head “no” when Sen. Kennedy, clearly referencing Talley, asked the panel of judicial nominees if they had “ever blogged in support of the Ku Klux Klan?”


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