On June 7, 2017, President Trump nominated Judge Ralph Erickson of the Federal District Court of North Dakota to fill a vacancy on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Erickson’s nomination comes after the seat was denied to President Obama’s nominee, as is the case for numerous judicial positions currently being filled by the Trump Administration. The seat opened on April 22, 2015, when Judge Kermit Edward Bye took senior status; on January 28, 2016, President Obama nominated Jennifer Puhl, an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of North Dakota, to fill the vacancy. Despite the fact that she was supported by both home state senators and was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee, Ms. Puhl never received a full Senate vote. Ms. Puhl’s nomination was ultimately returned to the President. Had she been confirmed, she would have been the first female federal judge in North Dakota, and only the third woman to ever serve on the Eighth Circuit.
Erickson’s record raises concerns. He has issued notable anti-LGBTQ and anti-environment rulings, granting one injunction to halt a Department of Health and Human Services rule that would have protected transgender individuals from discrimination by health providers, and another to halt the Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule.
Erickson has been heavily involved in partisan politics for many years. He ran for the North Dakota State House of Representatives as a Republican and worked actively in the party for almost two decades. He also made numerous donations to Republican candidates, and his wife continued to give to the GOP while Erickson sat on the state court bench. He faces a high bar in demonstrating that he would be capable of being a fair and neutral arbiter on the bench, rather than a partisan politician unable to separate his politics from his public service.
Finally, as noted, Erickson’s nomination was only possible because the Senate never acted on Puhl’s nomination, despite the bipartisan support she received. Senators Heitkamp and Hoeven both supported Puhl. Senator Lindsey Graham, commenting at her hearing, said “[y]ou did an excellent job and I look forward to moving you through the process.” In Committee, no senator from either party voted against her. Yet she never received a floor vote. Like Trump nominees Amul Thapar, Kevin Newsom, and Damien Schiff, all already considered by the Judiciary Committee, Erickson is enjoying the fruits of Republican obstruction of Obama’s nominees.