John Kennedy

Louisiana Senator John Kennedy during a Thursday hearing (screenshot via Twitter). 

WASHINGTON — Sen. John Kennedy hammered one of President Donald Trump’s nominees for a federal judgeship with a probing, five-minute series of questions this week, with video of the uncomfortable exchange garnering millions of views online.

The questions highlighted Matthew Spencer Petersen’s lack of courtroom experience. Pressed by Kennedy, Petersen acknowledged having never made arguments in a courtroom nor having tried a case — and then struggled to define a series of legal terms, several of which legal experts described as fairly basic.

Can't see video below? Click here.


Petersen, who’s currently a member of the Federal Election Commission, was nominated by Trump for a district court judgeship in the District of Columbia.

Kennedy’s grilling of Petersen — who likely won’t face a committee vote until next year — went viral Thursday night after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and fellow member of the Judiciary Committee, posted the video to Twitter.

“Hoo-boy,” Whitehouse wrote.

A White House spokesperson told CNN, "it is no surprise the President’s opponents keep trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations."

In a statement to The Advocate, Kennedy noted he "enthusiastically supported" Trump during the campaign and continues to back the president. According to FiveThirtyEight, Kennedy has voted in line with Trump about 93 percent of the time. Kennedy, a Republican at the end of his first year representing Louisiana in the Senate, has so far voted for all but one of Trump's nominees.

Petersen worked as a junior associate at a major Washington law firm for three years after graduating law school in 1999. He then worked on political campaigns and as a staff attorney to congressional committees until President George W. Bush appointed Petersen to the FEC in 2008.

Petersen didn't immediately respond to a request for comment sent Friday through the FEC's press office.

Kennedy drilled into Petersen's credentials with a pointed series of questions. Petersen acknowledged that he's never tried a case or argued a motion in court. He also said he hasn't participated in a deposition in years and pegged the total number of depositions he's been involved with at around five.

"I understand the challenge that would be ahead of me if I were fortunate enough to become a district court judge," Petersen told Kennedy. "I understand that the path that many successful district court judges have taken is different than I have taken."

Petersen pointed to his involvement in hundreds of FEC enforcement actions as well as his oversight role for FEC litigation as valuable experience for a potential judge.

But it was Petersen's failure to answer Kennedy's questions about a handful of legal terms that stunned attorneys and law professors.

"I was so shocked and appalled I couldn't believe it," said Joel Friedman, a law professor at Tulane University, of Petersen's fumbling answers.

Petersen's "complete lack of any legal knowledge was, to me, embarrassing, shocking and disqualifying," added Friedman, who's helped instruct nearly every newly confirmed federal district judge in the country over the last 30 years. "I say this not for any political purpose — the president is entitled to reasonable deference to his appointments — but this is ridiculous."

Several of the terms Kennedy asked about are "basic legal terms" that any law school graduate should be able to define in at least rough terms, Friedman said.

"A 'motion in limine' — that’s just basic, that’s the meat and potatoes of what a trial judge does," said Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, referring to a legal move to exclude evidence that Petersen wasn't familiar with. "That’s like a surgeon not knowing what a scalpel is, it’s that basic."

Kennedy has built a reputation as a particularly probing and aggressive questioner during his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel tasked with reviewing President Donald Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships.

Kennedy’s been an outspoken critic of White House Counsel Don McGahn, the Trump administration official charged with reviewing federal judicial nominations, whom Kennedy accused of offering “some very, very bad advice” and failing to respond to concerns from lawmakers.

Kennedy is also the only Republican senator to have voted against a Trump judicial nominee, having cast a “no” vote on Gregory Katsas’ nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was eventually confirmed.

Katsas had worked as deputy White House counsel to Trump before being confirmed. Kennedy said that creates a clear conflict of interest, as matters involving the president frequently make their way to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on which Katsas now sits.

"In the past year, I have supported nearly every one of President Trump’s picks," Kennedy said on Friday on his questioning of judicial nominees, "but I don’t blindly support them. I ask questions that I expect them to be able to answer.

"In doing so, I’m just doing my job," Kennedy said. "That’s why we have a Madisonian-inspired separation of powers. We need checks and balances so that we can serve the American people well."

Ciolino said many of the questions posed by senators at confirmation amount to partisan puffery and political grandstanding. But Kennedy, Ciolino said, has found an effective way of drilling into a nominee's competence for the judge "in a fair and relevant way."

"He’s drawing attention to himself," Ciolino said, "but by asking questions that really need to be asked."

Kennedy hasn't said how he'll end up voting on Petersen's nomination.

Earlier this week, the White House yanked the judicial nominations of two others that Kennedy had helped put in his crosshairs. Brett Talley, a Justice Department attorney tapped by Trump for a federal judgeship in Alabama, was unanimously rated as “unqualified” by the American Bar Association and came under withering criticism from Kennedy and others.

Kennedy said Talley failed to disclose that his wife works as chief of staff to McGahn, the administration official tasked with reviewing judicial nominees. Kennedy also lambasted Talley over his lack of courtroom experience and prolific posts to an online message board, including some defending the early Klu Klux Klan.

Kennedy called Talley’s nomination “embarrassing” and said he’d vote against him “in a heartbeat — twice, if I can.”

The nomination of Jeff Mateer for a Texas judgeship was also dropped this week. Mateer had come under criticism for his extreme views on transgender children, including a 2015 speech in which he said transgender children are a sign of "Satan's plan.”

Kennedy never attacked Mateer by name but appeared to criticize those views by posing a series of “yes” or “no” questions to other judicial nominees.

During at least two other confirmation hearings, Kennedy asked groups of would-be judges if they'd ever "described a child as part of Satan's plan?"

The White House yanked the nominations for Talley and Mateer after Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chairman, warned Trump that neither were likely to be confirmed by the Senate.

At Wednesday's hearing, Kennedy wrapped up by asking Petersen and four other nominees a final question that came across as a parting shot at Talley.

"Any of you blog? Any of you ever blog in support of the Klu Klux Klan?" Kennedy asked to shaking heads.

"Let the record reflect everybody said 'no.'"

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.