There are ways out of this legal box. Senators might challenge the very prejudging concept. For example: Why should a nominee who has portrayed herself as an impartial agent of the law be worried about judging a case in advance? Isnt this person committed to fairness in future cases, whatever her past rulings?
But while it is surely possible to ask more penetrating questions, the reality is that lawmakers tread fairly carefully during the appointment process, fearful of being portrayed as hectoring or hostile to judicial independence. In any event, no modern nominee has been rejected strictly for being evasive.
Some reformers have called for a second, more radical way of changing our appointments process: Why not do away with public questioning of nominees altogether? If the bright lights and cramped stage of the Senate Judiciary Committee prompt bland and guarded answers, why not limit the questioning to more free-wheeling and frank closed sessions? Indeed, this secret session model was the norm throughout the 19th century and was still in use as late as the 1950s.
But this approach might further distance the public from our judicial system. Closed confirmation hearings would be unlikely to induce a broad public debate about the court, the Constitution and federal law. Instead, any resulting discussion would be highly susceptible to being charged by politicized and partisan rhetoric, since individual Senators would not be tempered by a nominees presence or voice.
A third way of improving how we select justices is the most promising. Instead of identifying a single nominee (and perpetuating the myth that a single person is best fit to serve on the court), presidents should submit a short list of perhaps three suitable persons. The Senate, through both public and private proceedings, could then vet each of these candidates in turn, winnowing the list and ultimately confirming one person acceptable to both branches.
Such a change, requiring an amendment to Senate rules but not the Constitution, would comport well with a pragmatic judgment that the appointment process should serve as a kind of job interview with Americans and their representatives. This move might better encourage nominees to use their televised, public remarks to educate the citizenry and to speak widely and eloquently about how they apply constitutional and legal principles.
The multiple candidate approach might also lead presidents and appointees to take more risks by, respectively, nominating nontraditional figures (such as those with extensive political experience) and taking more seriously the prospect that stonewalling questions might generate real political costs. A judicial nominee who knows she will be directly compared to a candidate who could be more forthcoming will have greater incentive to provide answers with substance and bite.
In the 21st century, we need a Supreme Court nomination process that is more serious than political theater but more publicly accessible and useful than a law school seminar. We need the Senate to use its advice and consent role to present and challenge multiple candidates, each striving ambitiously and openly for a single coveted job.
Bruce Peabody is an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the editor of the forthcoming book Judiciary Under Siege.