WASHINGTON (CN) – After a notably uncontroversial nomination process, the Senate overwhelming confirmed President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Eighth Circuit on Thursday.
Judge Ralph Erickson, who has served on the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota since 2003, had an easy path through the U.S. Senate, receiving unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month and a 95-1 vote before the full body on Thursday.
Nominated by President George W. Bush to the federal bench in 2002, Erickson’s first judgeship was as a state judge in the early 1990s. He has also served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group since its formation in 2015.
Outspoken about his battles with alcoholism, Erickson has earned respect from lawyers who argued before him as being fair, careful and thorough on the bench.
“He has been very, very fair over the years,” Steven Mottinger, an attorney at the Fargo, N.D., firm Johnson Mottinger and Greenwood, told Courthouse News. “Patient, willing to listen. I think he would be a great addition to the appellate court.”
Mottinger represented a man accused of murder whose trial was before Erickson in 1997, and though his client eventually was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, Mottinger said Erickson handled several complicated evidentiary issues in the case fairly.
“Judge Erickson is very willing and always has been very willing to listen to both sides,” Mottinger said. “Takes time to make sure that he’s well-informed… of what the facts are or what they appear to be. Takes time to listen to both sides of the issues. Will ask and always has been more than willing to ask questions if he needs some additional clarification.”
Erickson has also expressed opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for criminal offenses, mirroring a growing consensus in the criminal-justice reform movement.
“I have served as a trial judge for over 23 years and have sentenced thousands of people,” Erickson told Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, in a written response to questions about his doubts about mandatory minimums. “Each person who appeared before me was a unique individual with a personal history and characteristics that needed to be considered. Each crime committed arose out of a unique milieu of facts that also needed to be considered.”
Curtis David Smith, a Minneapolis attorney who worked in a high-damages employment case involving a trucking company before Erickson, said the judge’s lengthy experience as a trial judge would be an asset on the Eighth Circuit.
“As a trial lawyer, it’s nice to have a judge on the appellate court who understands the trial process and has been in the trenches and can look at it from that perspective,” Smith told Courthouse News.
Democrats had relatively few objections to Erickson’s nomination, evidenced by his unanimous vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Still, a report from the liberal group Alliance for Justice raised concerns about Erickson’s decision to seal his order enjoining a Department of Health and Human Services rule banning medical professionals from discriminating against patients based on their gender identity or a past termination of a pregnancy.
The sealed two-page order, which Erickson provided to the committee in his written responses to additional lawmaker questions, in part mentions waivers of judicial disqualification filed in the case, noting they “were not intended to be made public at this time.”
The Alliance for Justice also noted that in 2015, Erickson blocked the Clean Water Rule, an environmental regulation the Obama administration put in place in 2014 to give the Environmental Protection Agency greater authority to regulate U.S. waterways.
Calling the rule an “exceptionally expansive” reading of the Clean Water Act, Erickson found the EPA went beyond its authority in making it.
“The benefit of that increased certainty would extend to a finite and relatively small percentage of the public,” Erickson wrote in the opinion explaining how he balanced the competing interests in the case. “A far broader segment of the public would benefit from the preliminary injunction because it would ensure that federal agencies do not extend their powers beyond the express delegation from Congress.”
Another issue raised during Erickson’s nomination process was a comment attributed to him in a 2007 book about Norwegian Americans. As relayed in questions for the record from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Erickson was cited in “The Promise Fulfilled: a Portrait of Norwegian Americans Today” as making “the observation that Scandinavians who appeared in front of his bench did not commit violent crimes; such felonies were more commonly associated with other ethnicities in the community.”
Erickson told Feinstein the comments, which were not a direct quote, were either misunderstood or taken out of context. Odd Lovoll, the author of the book, told Courthouse News he believes Erickson’s comments were nothing more than a statistical assessment of Norwegian American crime rates.
“It was my understanding that statistically Norwegians were less likely to commit violent crimes than many other nationalities,” Lovoll said in an email. “Judge Erickson was, in my mind, simply pointing this out as his experience as well, I try to explain this by suggesting that Norwegians in North Dakota by the 1990s had achieved a middle class status – the American dream.”