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Out of Our Misery

Opening statements should be banned for Supreme Court nomination hearings.

Is there a Washington political ritual more useless or annoying than the opening statements Senators deliver before they begin questioning nominees to the Supreme Court? The hectoring, posturing speeches provide no firm information about how the Senators will vote, are full of political buzzwords that will be useful ad footage come election season but that provide no useful evaluative criteria, and are long all out of proportion to their actual value. And most importantly, they waste hours of our time while we sit there waiting for the questioning to begin.

Lawmakers should do audiences, Elena Kagan, and themselves a favor by starting right in with questioning and making closing statements instead. Audiences would be much more likely to tune in immediately if they knew they'd get to the meet of the hearings from the early minutes, rather than tuning in and tuning out until the senators stop talking. The nominee would be fresher, and wouldn't have to sit through hours of listening to lawmakers talk about her but not to her, keeping an appropriately neutral, thoughtful expression on her face the whole time, no matter how inane the speech. And audiences might have an incentive to turn in to closing statements if lawmakers used them to sum up what they'd learned, how (if at all) their opinions had changed during the hearings, and to give more informed indicators of how they might vote.

It'll never happen, of course. It is an extraordinarily rare lawmaker who likes to listen more than he or she likes to talk. And hearings aren't actually the forum in which legislators make up their minds about who to confirm. There's no actual incentive to move from theatricality to functionality. Elena Kagan will just have to bear it. And so will we.

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