Trump Judicial Pick Withdraws After Struggling With Basic Legal Questions

WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump’s nominee to a seat on a Washington, D.C., federal court has withdrawn his name from consideration after a video of him struggling to answer basic legal questions went viral last week.

Matthew Spencer Petersen was unable to answer when Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked him to define common trial terms like motion in limine, or describe basic legal concepts, like the Daubert standard. Petersen, a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, also told Kennedy he has never conducted a jury trial.

Lawyers submit a motion in limine before a trial to exclude certain testimony from being presented to a jury, while the Daubert standard governs the admissibility of expert witness testimony, taking its name from the 1993 Supreme Court decision Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals.

Petersen also said he last read the Federal Rules for Evidence in law school and that he was not up to date on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Kennedy initially asked all of the District Court nominees testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 13 whether they had ever handled a trial, but drilled down on Petersen when he answered that he had not. Kennedy has asked nominees whether they have tried a case ever since the nomination of Brett Talley to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama gained national attention.

The American Bar Association rated Talley not qualified, and it later surfaced that Talley had posted on an online message board appearing to defend the early KKK. Talley also did not inform the Senate of his marriage to the chief of staff of the White House counsel.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week Talley’s nomination would not be going forward in the Senate, and Kennedy has asked questions at nomination hearings hinting at Talley’s record in the weeks since the additional information came forward.

Kennedy also voted against the nomination of Greg Katsas, a former White House lawyer who the Senate confirmed to a seat on the D.C. Circuit in November, making the freshman senator arguably the most vocal Republican critic of Trump’s judicial nominees.

“I think he’s whip smart, probably,” Kennedy said on CNN last week, referring to Petersen. “But you can’t just walk into a federal courthouse for the very first time and say ‘Here I am, I think I want to be a judge.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

In a letter Petersen sent to Trump that was obtained by MSNBC, the nominee said going forward in the confirmation process would be a “distraction.”

“I had hoped that my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my two worst minutes on television,” Petersen wrote. “However, I am no stranger to political realities and I do not wish to be a continued distraction from the important work of your administration and the Senate.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the decision sent on Monday afternoon. A spokesman for Grassley directed comment to the White House.

A spokesperson for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, did not immediately return a request for comment sent Monday afternoon.

The liberal group Alliance For Justice hailed the withdrawal, tying Petersen’s qualifications to those of Talley and Jeffery Matter, who was up for a spot on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and will also not receive further action in the Senate after it came to light that he once referred to transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan.”

“It’s time for that irresponsible behavior to stop and also time for the White House to stop sending up the kind of nominees we’re seeing: individuals with inadequate credentials, open hostility to the rights of fellow Americans, or both,” AFJ Legal Director Daniel Goldberg said in a statement Monday afternoon.

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