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There are no stupid questions. Only stupid people.5 min read

There really is no time quite like Confirmation Season. Don’t get me wrong, politics are beholden to a wide variety of nonsensical dog and pony shows, each involving their own special kind of dumb, but if the recent confirmation hearings for soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson are any evidence, Supreme Court nomination hearings might just be the dumbest.

That’s big talk in a world in which Sen. Ron Blumenthal once grilled Facebook execs on whether or not they would take down “Finsta,” an app or service or who knows what that doesn’t actually exist, but here we are. 

Such is the nature of giving opposition senators free reign to say whatever they want with thousands of cameras on them. Given the polarized nature of just about anything in Washington these days, every Supreme Court nominee since Clarence Thomas has been aggressively coached on how not to say anything of substance, lest it derail the path to the high court. Congresspeople, in turn, have taken advantage of their televised question time to grandstand and propagandize. In a world in which viral 30-second soundbites are the path to rallying campaign support, most questions from senators are designed less to assess the qualifications of jurists than to make the senator look super smart and cool and very concerned about whether or not your child will be forced into gender and religion reassignment surgery just because they wore an American flag shirt to school that day. Then they send out fundraising emails.

That means irrelevant, bizarre, and, above all, dumb things.

Before going any further, I should note that this is not a partisan diatribe in which I say which side is smart or dumb. Republicans are currently the Senate minority if you consider Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. That means they’re the ones that, by the nature of confirmation hearing dynamics, try to make a stink and ask stupid questions. This is not purely their domain. Democrats have taken plenty of advantage of the opportunity to say dumb things in these hearings, such as when, amid much more serious allegations during the hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Sheldon Whitehouse thought it pertinent to ask the nominee what the word “ralph” referred to in his high school yearbook.

And yet, this time around the questions seemed especially dumb. I can’t swear to you that every time a seat opens on the bench I cozy up on the couch with a bucket of popcorn and absorb the proceedings. That’s because congressional hearings, generally speaking, are super boring. The hearings for Brown-Jackson, however, have produced some gems, and I just don’t know where to begin.

Do I start with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who revealed Brown-Jackson’s soft on crime sympathies with a masterclass of nonsense that included, “Do you think we should catch and imprison more murderers or fewer murderers?” Maybe we should go with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), who got the nominee good by asking her to define the word “woman.” Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) asked Brown-Jackson if her non-denominational faith prevented her from fairly ruling in cases regarding Catholics, at which point the nominee reminded him that the United States Constitution establishes a separation of Church and State, something most Americans are aware of before they actually know what “Church and State” are.

For my money, though, the crowning achievement was undoubtedly the bizarre rant from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Cancun), in which he demanded Brown-Jackson give a review of a children’s book titled Antiracist Baby, a choice that served no purpose but to dramatically boost sales of Antiracist Baby.

What are we doing?

Remember, this is a woman with credentials so unimpeachable that none other than noted liberal firebrand Paul Ryan has repeatedly supported Brown-Jackson’s advancement through the ranks of the federal court. Yeah, that Paul Ryan. The former GOP Vice Presidential nominee who dreams about eliminating health insurance subsidies so we can pay for corporate tax cuts.

While I am very proud of Mr. Cruz for also announcing during his time that he had “read the entirety” of a book written for fifth-graders, I can’t help but think there must be a better way to determine lifetime appointments for the most powerful judicial body in the world. The very nature of these hearings is determined by the fact that confirmation is almost never in doubt, so one has to ask why we’re wasting our time? How can we better execute the Senate’s crucial check on Presidential power by refining the right to “advice and consent” on judicial nominees? Why is the current system forcing someone like Brown-Jackson, a Harvard Law graduate, former Supreme Court clerk, and most-accomplished person in virtually any room she walks into – including the Senate chamber – to sit through this nonsense?

Recently, House Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-North Carolina) has come under fire for claiming other Congressmen have invited him to orgies and cocaine parties. It is a feat that this is, maybe, not the dumbest thing uttered by an elected representative in the past month. At least Cawthorn had the good sense not to say it on the Congressional record.

Look, I’m not naive. This process, the impulses it feeds, and the behavior it rewards aren’t changing any time soon. It may just be an undeniable byproduct of the system and our current media environment. But maybe one day we’ll come to our senses and find a way to protect senators from themselves while appropriately determining who should and should not get to determine what’s constitutional. 

Until then, this is what we’ve got. It may not be what the founding fathers dreamed up, but on the plus side, it has given me some good inspiration for my summer reading list. I suppose the end result could be worse.

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