Judge Ralph Erickson – Nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Judge Ralph Erickson has served on the bench in some capacity for 24 years, and has served as a federal trial judge for 14 of those years.  As such, he is a fairly experienced and safe choice by the Trump Administration for the Eighth Circuit.

Background

Ralph Robert Erickson was born in in the small town of Thief River Falls, Minnesota in 1959.  After getting a B.A. at Jamestown College (now the University of Jamestown), Erickson attended the University of North Dakota School of Law, graduating with distinction in 1984.  After graduating, Erickson was hired as an associate at Ohnstad Twichell P.C., working on family law and municipal court matters.  Alongside that position, Erickson also served as a prosecutor for the cities of West Fargo and Riverside, North Dakota.

In 1992, Erickson left these positions to run for a seat in the North Dakota state legislature while setting up a private practice.  Erickson lost the race for a seat in the North Dakota House of Representatives, but was appointed as a County Magistrate a year later.  In 1994, Erickson was appointed as a County Judge for a four county district, and in 1995, he became a District Judge for the East Central Judicial District, based in Fargo.

In September 2002, Erickson, then 43, was nominated by President George W. Bush for a lifetime appointment on the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota.  Erickson was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 12, 2003.[1]  Erickson currently serves in that capacity.

Erickson has often spoken out about his personal struggles with alcohol.  In a 2007 interview with the University of North Dakota Law School, Erickson described overcoming alcoholism as “one of his greatest strengths.”[2]  He specifically noted:

“I have an insight into personal failures that I would not have if I had not had this particular problem, and as a judge it allows me to refrain from judging other people.”[3]

Erickson is also a frequent speaker at Alcoholics Anonymous, assisting others with finding sobriety.

History of the Seat

Erickson was tapped for a North Dakota seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.  This seat was vacated by Judge Kermit Edward Bye, an appointee of President Bill Clinton.  Bye moved to senior status on April 22, 2015, and President Obama nominated Jennifer Klemetsrud Puhl, a federal prosecutor, to fill the vacancy.[4]  Puhl, who had the support of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), received a hearing on June 21, 2016,[5] and was unanimously moved to the floor on July 14, 2016.  However, Puhl’s nomination ran into a blockade on confirmations imposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and was never confirmed.

In December 2016, Erickson contacted Hoeven and Heitkamp expressing his interest in the vacancy.  After interviewing with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, Erickson was formally nominated on June 7, 2017.[6]  Like Puhl, Erickson has the support of both Hoeven and Heitkamp.[7]

Political Activity

Before becoming a judge, Erickson was fairly active in the North Dakota Republican Party.  In addition to donating to the party,[8] Erickson served as an Executive Committee member, a Precinct Chair, and a member of the State Republican Committee at various times.  He ceased participation in such roles upon his selection as a judge.

Legal Career

Before becoming a judge, Erickson worked as a part-time prosecutor, prosecuting small traffic and misdemeanor cases between 1984 and 1991.  Erickson also practiced family law and landlord tenant matters, trying approximately thirty five cases.  During this time, Erickson handled the unsuccessful appeal of a construction worker who suffered a heart attack due to workplace stress.[9]  The North Dakota Supreme Court ruled against Erickson’s client 3-2.  Erickson also represented personal injury plaintiffs, including a senior citizen who was struck by a fully loaded luggage cart while on a bus tour of New England,[10] and a single father who was struck by a pickup truck while riding his motorcycle.[11]

Jurisprudence

Erickson has served as a federal trial judge for approximately fourteen years.  During this time, he has established a reputation as a fair, middle of the road judge.[12]  A look at the 500+ orders and decisions Erickson has handed down suggests certain patterns:

Deference to Jury Determinations of Facts

While many federal judges continue to use summary judgment to maintain control of their dockets, Erickson has shown an unwillingness to decide factual disputes reserved for the jury.  As such, he has frequently denied summary judgment on motions of both plaintiffs[13] and defendants.[14]  In one case, Erickson notes

“The parties have not had an opportunity to conduct discovery with regard to any of the claims; therefore, summary judgment is premature as to all claims.”[15]

Similarly, Erickson is generally deferential to jury verdicts, regardless of whether they support the plaintiff or the defendant.  In one case, Erickson rejected a defendant’s motion to overturn a jury verdict for the plaintiff, noting that the verdict was “reasonable based on the substantial evidence provided at trial.”[16]

Narrow Enforcement of Criminal Procedural Protections

While Erickson has generally ruled against criminal defendants raising Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment claims, he has, under narrow circumstances, shown a willingness to support their claims.  

While sitting by designation on the Eighth Circuit, Erickson held that a defendant’s rights were not violated where he was committed for a mental competency evaluation without being present at the hearing.[17]  Specifically, Erickson noted that while the decision could constitute a trial error, such error was harmless.[18]

However, in another case, Erickson ruled in favor of a defendant seeking to avoid having his request for a lawyer used as an inference of guilt.[19] 

Similarly, while Erickson has generally rejected motions to suppress based on Fourth Amendment violations,[20] he suppressed evidence in a case where the defendant’s consent to search her hotel room was coerced.[21]

Willingness to Reverse Criminal Convictions

While Erickson has affirmed most challenges to criminal convictions before him,[23] he has also shown a willingness to overturn convictions obtained through violations of defendants’ rights.

For example, in one case, Erickson found that a defendant had been convicted despite the failure of the government to provide appropriate Brady evidence.[24] 

Perhaps no case better demonstrates Erickson’s willingness to overturn convictions than U.S. v. Williams.  Alphonso Williams was convicted of participating in a drug trafficking conspiracy despite the fact that “Williams was never seen selling drugs… buying drugs…using drugs…[or] discussing drugs.”[25]  In granting Williams’ motion for acquittal, Erickson describes a jury process that was tainted by race, noting that this was “a trial so tainted and a result so perverse that to allow the verdict to stand would render all of us insecure as citizens.”[26]  Erickson also lambasts his own role as trial judge, stating:

“Rulings that I made and oversight I failed to provide created an atmosphere in which a jury was simply unable to avoid an elephant in the courtroom—an elephant that should never have been allowed in the first place. Had the court made the correct rulings and had the court provided appropriate instructions and guidance, I have no doubt the verdict would have been different.”[27]

Ultimately, Erickson’s decision was partially reversed by the Eighth Circuit.[28]

Reversals

In the fourteen years he has been a federal judge, Erickson has been reversed approximately thirty times, a reasonable rate of reversal.  Many of these have reversed Erickson’s rulings in favor of criminal defendants,[29] although a handful of reversals are based on errors that prejudiced defendants.[30]  Notably, the Eighth Circuit reversed Erickson’s granting of a judgment of acquittal in Williams, although it affirmed his decision to grant Williams a new trial.[31]   

In one key case, Erickson found that police officers who shot a suicidal man were not entitled to qualified immunity, as there was a genuine dispute of material fact involving their actions.[32]  However, the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that, based on the facts of the case, the officers’ actions were objectively reasonable.[33]

Judicial Controversies

Of the 500+ plus cases that Erickson has presided over, three in particular are likely to draw attention:

United States v. Rodriguez

Rodriguez was the first death penalty trial in North Dakota since 1913.  The defendant was charged with kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering Dru Sjodin.  Erickson managed both the trial and penalty proceedings, ultimately sentencing Rodriguez to the death penalty.[34]

Erickson’s decision was appealed to the Eighth Circuit, who affirmed the death sentence.[35]  However, Judge Melloy dissented, arguing that improper arguments by the prosecutors during the penalty trials required reversal of the death sentence.[36] 

North Dakota v. EPA

This case involved a challenge to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Rule that broadened the definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act to ensure that small streams and wetlands were also protected.[37]  Erickson found that the EPA’s rule was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).[38]

Erickson’s ruling drew sharp criticism at the time,[39] and may be revived to suggest a prejudice against environmental groups.

United States v. Martinez

In this case, Erickson’s conduct was called into question by a defendant he sentenced.  Erickson sentenced Martinez to life in prison after his guilty plea on a trial involving a cartel killing.  However, Martinez challenged the sentence, arguing that his attorney, Thomas Dickson, and Erickson had an improper social relationship, and that Dickson had assured him that Erickson would give him a lower sentence.

After an evidentiary hearing, Judge Jeffrey Viken rejected Martinez’s claims and found that “no improper out-of-court or social relationship existed between Judge Erickson and Mr. Dickson and that they never discussed Mr. Martinez’s plea options outside of the record.”[40]

Overall Assessment

Erickson represents the kind of nominee Trump should nominate more often: experienced, well-respected, and judicially moderate.  With the exception of the rulings highlighted above, it is unlikely that any of Erickson’s judicial conduct will draw scrutiny.  Additionally, given Sen. Heitkamp’s strong support, it is likely that Erickson will be swiftly confirmed.


[1] Jeff Zent, Senate Confirms Confirms as Judge, Inforum, Mar. 14, 2003, http://www.inforum.com/content/senate-confirms-confirms-judge.

[2] The University of North Dakota School of Law, The Case of a Lifetime, UND Law, Summer 2007, 4, 7, https://law.und.edu/_files/docs/alumni/pdf/nd-law/07nd-law02.pdf.

[3] 

[4] Press Release, The White House Archives, President Obama Nominates Jennifer Klemetsrud Puhl to Serve on the United States Court of Appeals (Jan. 28, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/29/president-obama-nominates-jennifer-klemetsrud-puhl-serve-united-states).

[5] Patrick Springer, Senate Hearing Friendly for Appointment to Replace Fargo-Based Appeals Judge, The Bismarck Tribune, June 21, 2016, http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/senate-hearing-friendly-for-appointment-to-replace-fargo-based-appeals/article_5155ec6c-fe6e-5445-910a-6816105c8f51.html.

[6] AP, North Dakota Federal Judge Nominated for Appeals Court, US News, June 7, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/north-dakota/articles/2017-06-07/north-dakota-federal-judge-nominated-for-appeals-court.  

[7] See id.  See also Press Release, Office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Heitkamp Statement on Nomination of Ralph Erickson to Serve as Judge on 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (June 7, 2017) (on file at https://www.heitkamp.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/6/heitkamp-statement-on-nomination-of-ralph-erickson-to-serve-as-judge-on-8th-circuit-court-of-appeals).

[9] See Grace v. North Dakota Workers Comp. Bureau, 395 N.W.2d 576 (N.D. 1986).

[10] Sellie v. North Dakota Ins. Guaranty Assoc., 494 N.W.2d 151 (N.D. 1992).

[11] In re the Matter of Kyle Smith, 119 B.R. 714 (Bankr. D.N.D. 1990).

[12] See Patrick Springer, Trump Nominates U.S. District Judge in Fargo to Federal Appeals Court, The Bismarck Tribune, June 9, 2017, http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/trump-nominates-u-s-district-court-judge-in-fargo-to/article_401fa1b0-5d60-5ad5-a2c2-0b39d7675640.html (quoting Prof. Carl Tobias) (“[Erickson] enjoys a reputation for being a fair, mainstream jurist who possesses great judicial temperament.”).

[13] See, e.g., Associated Potato Growers, Inc. v. BNSF Ry. Co., corporation, No. 2:15-CV-11, 2016 WL 7495845, at *1 (D.N.D. May 12, 2016); Tioga Townhomes, LLC v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., No. 4:14-CV-99, 2016 WL 7507792, at *1 (D.N.D. Jan. 4, 2016).

[14] See, e.g., Ewina v. Basic Energy Servs., Inc., No. 4:14-CV-157, 2016 WL 4717985, at *1 (D.N.D. Sept. 9, 2016); BNSF Ry. Co. v. Progress Rail Servs. Corp., No. 3:13-CV-80, 2016 WL 7496873, at *1 (D.N.D. Aug. 16, 2016); Max Bancorp, LLC v. Nat’l Bank of Harvey, No. 4:14-CV-152, 2016 WL 7496899, at *1 (D.N.D. May 25, 2016); Korinek v. FlexTM, Inc., No. 3:14-CV-74, 2015 WL 12591730, at *1 (D.N.D. Mar. 2, 2015).

[15] A & R Fugleberg Farms, Inc. v. Triangle Ag, LLC, No. 3:09-CV-07, 2010 WL 1418870, at *1 (D.N.D. Apr. 7, 2010).  

[16] Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, LLC, No. 4:13-CV-10, 2016 WL 3762697, at *1 (D.N.D. Mar. 4, 2016).

[17] United States v. Zavesky, 839 F.3d 688, 691 (8th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1388, 197 L. Ed. 2d 565 (2017).

[18] See id. at 694-95.

[19] United States v. Garcia, No. 4:13-CR-207, 2015 WL 13229566, at *1 (D.N.D. Apr. 14, 2015).

[20] See United States v. Trotter, No. 2:14-CR-96, 2015 WL 13101987, at *1 (D.N.D. Mar. 4, 2015); United States v. Brown, No. 2:11-CR-84, 2011 WL 13130436, at *2 (D.N.D. Oct. 25, 2011); United States v. Hager, No. 3:11-CR-11, 2011 WL 3862072, at *1 (D.N.D. Aug. 31, 2011), aff’d, 710 F.3d 830 (8th Cir. 2013).

[21] United States v. Quintero, No. 3:10-CR-51, 2010 WL 3522251, at *1 (D.N.D. Sept. 8, 2010), aff’d, 648 F.3d 660 (8th Cir. 2011).

[22] State of Minn. v. Obeta, 796 N.W.2d 282 (Minn. 2011) (Stras, J., dissenting).

[23] See, e.g., United States v. Banks, No. 2:11-CR-4, 2015 WL 12723043, at *1 (D.N.D. July 30, 2015); United States v. Trotter, No. 2:14-CR-96-02, 2015 WL 13101986, at *1 (D.N.D. Apr. 21, 2015); United States v. Bagola, No. 2:12-CR-63, 2013 WL 11322598, at *6 (D.N.D. Dec. 5, 2013), aff’d, 796 F.3d 903 (8th Cir. 2015); United States of Am. Plaintiff, v. Jonathan Jason McClarin, a/k/a Jay Defendant., No. 3:09-CR-155-3, 2012 WL 12966187, at *1 (D.N.D. June 28, 2012); United States v. Garrett, 648 F.3d 618, 621 (8th Cir. 2011).

[24] Cvijanovich v. United States, No. 3:07-CR-55, 2011 WL 2680485, at *11 (D.N.D. July 8, 2011).

[25] United States v. Williams, No. 3:09-CR-55-02, 2010 WL 9137843, at *2 (D.N.D. Jan. 22, 2010).

[26] Id. at *1.

[27] Id. at *1.

[28] United States v. Williams, 647 F.3d 855 (8th Cir. 2011).

[29] See Davis v. United States, No. 12-cr-109, Doc. No. 243 (D.N.D. Mar. 30, 2016), rev’d, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 2295789 (8th Cir. 2017); Taylor v. United States, No. 3:09-cr-69, Doc. No. 723 (D.N.D. Jan. 30, 2014), rev’d, 792 F.3d 865 (8th Cir. 2015); United States v. Cavanaugh, 680 F. Supp. 2d 1062, 1077 (D.N.D. 2009), rev’d, 643 F.3d 592 (8th Cir. 2011)

[30] See, e.g., United States v. Robertson, No. 08-cr-62, Doc. No. 65 (D.N.D. Feb. 18, 2009), rev’d, 606 F.3d 943 (8th Cir. 2010); United States v. Chalupnick, No. 06-cr-94, Doc. No. 23 (D.N.D. Feb. 5, 2007), rev’d, 514 F.3d 748 (8th Cir. 2008).

[31] See United States v. Williams, 647 F.3d 855 (8th Cir. 2011).

[32] Partlow v. Stadler, No. 3:12-CV-80, 2014 WL 12059001, at *5 (D.N.D. Jan. 22, 2014), rev’d, 774 F.3d 497 (8th Cir. 2014).  

[33] See 774 F.3d 497 (8th Cir. 2014).

[34] United States v. Rodriguez, 581 F.3d 775, 784 (8th Cir. 2009).

[35] See id. at 783.

[36] Id. at 816 (Melloy, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

[37] North Dakota v. U.S. E.P.A., 127 F. Supp. 3d 1047, 1051 (D.N.D. 2015).

[38] See id. 

[39] Samantha Page, Judge Steps in at the Last Minute to Block EPA, Heroically Saves America from Clean Water, ThinkProgress, Aug. 28, 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/judge-steps-in-at-last-minute-to-block-epa-heroically-saves-america-from-clean-water-3de1d55fd473.

[40] United States v. Martinez, No. 3:06-CR-14-17, 2017 WL 944188, at *7 (D.N.D. Mar. 8, 2017).

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