Sites of Storytelling: Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

Patrick Barry

Supreme Court confirmation hearings have an interesting biographical feature: before nominees even say a word, many words are said about them. This feature—which has been on prominent display in the confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh—is a product of how each senator on the confirmation committee is allowed to make an opening statement. Some of these statements are “lavish in their praise,” some are “lavish in their denunciations,” and some are “lavish in their equivocations.” The result is a disorienting kind of biography by committee, one which produces not one all-encompassing narrative—with tensions reconciled, discrepancies explained, and the presentation of a coherent, if complex, portrait of the nominee—but rather several competing biographies, many of which directly war with each other. This experience has repeated itself in virtually every Supreme Court confirmation hearing since confirmation hearings became a regular part of the nomination process in 1955. There is a lot to regret about this. Partisan bickering doesn’t need any additional forums nor is the country really at a loss for grandstanding. At the same time, however, the hearings do offer a rare opportunity to study how this very public stage serves as an important site for storytelling about America’s highest court, about the people we deem fit to sit there, and about justice more generally.

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