Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2022
US Supreme Court confirmation hearings provide senators with an opportunity to engage a potential justice on a nationwide stage. Senators probe for information about future behavior on the bench. Nominees work through the questions, oscillating between forthcoming and vague responses. Such behavior encourages popular narratives that characterize this intricate dance as a “vapid and hollow charade.” We challenge this wisdom and argue that senators use these hearings to provide meaningful representation to their constituents while simultaneously supporting copartisan efforts regarding the nominee. We examine the exchanges in 185 senator-nominee pairings that span nearly 30 years of confirmation hearings. Our results show that senators from both parties increase their question-asking activity during divided government, when confirmation success is more dubious. Senators from the president’s party ask fewer questions when their constituents support the nominee, however, suggesting that popular support can attenuate this general effect for senators expecting a successful confirmation.
Originally prepared for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 12–15, 2017. We thank Donald Campbell, Marcus Hendershot, Amy Steigerwalt, and Alicia Uribe-McGuire for their helpful comments. We also thank Dion Farganis, Ryan Owens, and Justin Wedeking for sharing their data on confirmation hearings, as well as Jonathan Kastellec, Jeffrey Lax, Michael Malecki, and Justin Phillips for making their public opinion data and code available via Harvard Dataverse. Finally, we thank Ryan Black, Marty Jordan, Ian Ostrander, and Corwin Smidt for their commentary on several iterations of this project and Emma Brooks, Leopold Ditz, and Lola Kurniawan for their support.