Peter Welte – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota

Peter Welte has worn many hats throughout his career: farmer, student, prosecutor, teacher, and, if his confirmation is secured, judge.

Background

Peter David Welte was born in New Britain, CT on December 21, 1965.  Welte graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1989 and then spent five years working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.[1]  He then attended the University of North Dakota Law School, graduating with distinction.[2]

After graduating, Welte worked as City Attorney in Larimore, North Dakota until he took a position as Assistant State’s Attorney for Grand Forks County.  In 2003, Welte was elected to become State’s Attorney for Grand Forks County, a position he held until 2015.

In 2015, Welte joined the Vogel law firm, a North Dakota institution whose alumni include two Eighth Circuit Judges, and former U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon.[3]  He serves in that capacity today.

Welte has also been self-employed as a grain farmer at Ash Grove Farm since 1995.

History of the Seat

The seat Welte has been nominated for opened on October 12, 2017, with Judge Ralph Erickson’s elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.  In October 2017, Welte contacted North Dakota’s senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp to express his interest in the vacancy.[4]   Welte interviewed with the White House in December 2017, after which, his nomination sat in limbo for almost six months.  In May 2018, Welte was preliminary selected as a nominee for the seat.  However, Welte was not nominated until eight months after that, in which time, Heitkamp lost her re-election to Kevin Cramer, a Republican.  Cramer and Hoeven both support Welte’s nomination.

Legal Experience

Welte has spent the most significant portion of his legal career as a state prosecutor in Grand Forks.  As the elected State’s Attorney for Grand Forks County, Welte supervised the office and served as Chief Counsel for 19 county agencies and boards.  Notably, Welte brought the initial state prosecution against Alfonso Rodriguez for the murder of college student Dru Sjodin.[5]  Rodriguez was eventually prosecuted federally by Drew Wrigley (later the Lt. Governor of North Dakota) for the murder and sentenced to death.  Welte also oversaw the results of an investigation into the Grand Forks County Correctional Center after an inmate committed suicide at the institution, deciding not to bring any criminal charges as a result of the death.[6]  In contrast, Welte did bring charges against two Grand Forks Police officers who made an African American man stand outside in sub-zero temperatures without a coat.[7]

Welte’s tenure as Grand Forks prosecutor has not been without controversy, however.  In 2008, Naomi Lee made a complaint of prosecutorial misconduct against Welte and Assistant State’s Attorney Meredith Larson for choosing not to pursue charges against the man Lee claimed had sexually assaulted her.[8]  Larson had chosen not to continue with the prosecution after inculpatory statements made by the defendant were thrown out by a judge.[9]  Welte and Larson faced a hearing before an inquiry committee of the North Dakota State Bar but no disciplinary action appears to have been taken.

Political Activity

Welte is a Republican who was elected to be Grand Forks County State’s Attorney in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014.[10]  He has also volunteered on the campaigns of Hoeven, as well as Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.[11]

Writings

Welte has frequently written both academically and as a blogger on legal issues.  In 2010, Welte wrote an article criticizing the North Dakota Supreme Court’s decision in Riemers v. Eslinger for expanding the right to a jury trial for violations of municipal offenses.[12]  In Riemers, the Court relied on the history of the jury trial right in North Dakota and held that the right extended beyond the protections of the federal constitution to petty offenses.[13]  Welte argued that the right to a jury trial for petty offenses was a waste of resources, noting that a jury empaneled for a $20 ticket cost the state $780.[14]  As such, he encouraged the narrowing of the right through reversal, legislative action, or constitutional amendments.

Overall Assessment

The District of North Dakota desperately needs new federal judges.  Since Erickson’s elevation to the Eighth Circuit, Judge Daniel Hovland has been the only active judge on the court, and he is set to vacate his seat this year.  As such, Welte will certainly be needed.

Looking at Welte’s record overall, it reads as that of a mainstream conservative with a few potential flashpoints but nothing that will draw excessive opposition.  As such, Welte looks likely to join the District of North Dakota this year, the first new judge since Erickson joined sixteen years ago.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong. Peter D. Welte: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 3.

[2] See id. at 1.

[3] Id. at 2.

[4] Id. at 51.

[5] Dave Kolpack, Man with Record as Sex Offender Arrested in Connection With Missing North Dakota Student, Associated Press, Dec. 2, 2003.

[6] Kevin Bonham, INVESTIGATION: Jailers Missed Suicide Attempt, Grand Forks Herald, Oct. 14, 2006.

[7] Susanne Nadeau, Officers Face Charges, Grand Forks Herald, Mar. 11, 2008.

[8] Stephen J. Lee, Prosecutors Face Inquiry Over Dismissal Of Rape Case, Grand Forks Herald, Mar. 14, 2008, https://www.grandforksherald.com/news/2070726-prosecutors-face-inquiry-over-dismissal-rape-case.  

[9] See id.

[10] See Welte, supra n. 1 at 35.

[11] See id.

[12] Peter D. Welte, The Law of Unintended Consequences: The North Dakota Supreme Court Recognizes the Right to a Jury Trial for Noncriminal Traffic Offenses in Riemers v. Eslinger, 86 N.D. L. Rev. 505 (2010).

[13] See id. at 514-15.

[14] Id. at 518-19.