Lading and Weight: Suggested Evidentiary Burdens in Senate Judicial-Nominee Hearings Post-Kavanaugh
The Senate proceedings occasioned by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh left the then-nominee calling them a “circus” and observers confused about who was supposed to prove what and by what standard. Since the Senate is ill-suited to sorting out cases and controversies (and since the Ford-Kavanaugh matter will surely not be the last of its kind), the Senate should adopt standards (burdens of proof) for future judicial-nominee proceedings that it borrows from a sister branch—the judiciary.
In any proceeding, the burden must be laded—it must be determined which party has the burden in the first place. It must also be weighted—it must be determined how much of a burden is to be imposed. This lading and weighting takes place with regard to both the burden of making out a colorable claim (the burden of production) and also the threshold for deciding in a party’s favor (the burden of persuasion). Courts often lade the burden of persuasion, in particular, on the party that (a) has the lesser interest at stake, (b) precipitates (as distinguished from initiates) the action, or (c) warrants special suspicion and scrutiny. This Article applies these principles to Senate judicial-nominee proceedings, noting that those proceedings sometimes involve two separate inquiries: (1) the qualification (or general suitability) inquiry, and (2) the inquiry into any allegation of specific and potentially disqualifying wrongdoing. The Article posits that, as to the qualification inquiry, the nominee has the burdens of production and persuasion and must show with convincing evidence that he or she is suitable for office. As to the allegation inquiry, although the accuser should have the burden of producing credible evidence to establish a plausible claim of wrongdoing, sound principles mitigate against the accuser bearing the ultimate burden of persuasion. That burden should rest with the nominee, who must show that the allegation is implausible, incredible, or unreasonable. Finally, this Article proposes a sliding scale for determining the precise threshold of proof required to meet this burden, focusing on the three different levels of federal judicial appointments (district judge, circuit judge, and Supreme Court justice) and accounting for the different interests involved as to each.