A few days ago at Poliblog, Steven made an observation about the current hearings for Judge John Roberts, nominee for Chief Justice of the United States:
these events have so little to do, ultimately, with either seeking knowledge or honest public debate, that I have to ask as to whether we should have them at all.
At Arguing with Signposts, Bryan was even harsher, calling the hearing process a “charade.”
If we consider the process a debate about whether Roberts should become Chief Justice, then Steven and Bryan have a point. There is, after all, no doubt about the outcome, because he is a Republican nominee and will be confirmed by a Republican Senate (and Democrats don’t have anything worthy of a filibuster in this case, and they know it).
But does the outcome have to be in doubt for the hearings to have value? In a system of co-equal independent executive and legislative branches, public disagreements between the executive and legislators (in this case senators from the party with the minority of seats) provide information to the public. This information highlights points of disagreement between the parties (and the president and senators as individuals) on important issues of the day (like judicial philosophy).
From this information-providing perspective, it is beneficial that there are some senators who are ambitious enough to be seeking the presidency (Joe Biden, for example, on the Judiciary Committee). The hearings are framing and “test-driving” issues that might be relevant to the next opportunity voters have to choose a president (and, for that matter, senators).
We don’t have anything like the Question Period that exists in Britain and Canada, or the no-confidence procedures that exist in all parliamentary democracies. In most of these democracies, justices of the supreme court are simply selected by the prime minister. The legislative involvement is indirect, in that the executive itself is collectively accountable to the legislature.
But in our system the executive is independent. Thus hearings for confirmation (and other purposes) are the closest analogue we have to Question Period and confidence votes. Without them, we would know much less as a public about the issues in dispute between the branches of government, orâ€”when the branches are held by the same partyâ€”between the parties.