Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras faced a Senate committee Wednesday, promising an independent approach if he’s confirmed for the federal judiciary but declining to outline his views on a number of hot-button issues.
Stras, flanked by his family and supporters from Minnesota legal and political circles, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would be an impartial voice on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The nomination by President Donald Trump had stalled until Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican committee chairman, scheduled this week’s hearing, over the objections of one of Stras’ home-state senators, Al Franken.
“I am deeply humbled by this opportunity,” said Stras, a grandson of Holocaust survivors who rose to serve on Minnesota’s highest court. “If confirmed, I will remain committed to interpreting and applying the law in an impartial manner, as I have done for the past seven years as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.”
Stras’ qualifications for the job had been overshadowed by the process that put his name into consideration. Minnesota’s Democratic senators complained that the Trump administration sidestepped the usual consultation process and simply presented them with Stras’ name, culled from a list of potential Supreme Court nominees provided by legal groups that espouse a conservative judicial philosophy.
“I want everybody, you especially, to understand that my objection here was not about you personally,” Franken said to Stras during the hearing. Franken had refused to return the so-called blue slip required for judicial nominees to advance to a hearing, but Grassley announced two weeks ago that he would schedule the hearing anyway — on the same day Franken was hit by a sexual harassment allegation.
Franken quoted then-candidate Trump’s remarks about judicial nominations during the campaign, saying he “proudly declared he would, ‘appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice [Antonin] Scalia’ and said ‘the justices I’m going to appoint will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent.’ ”
Franken also said that it “concerns me that the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation seem to have more insight — must have more insight — into your views and philosophy than the American people do.”
Stras declined to discuss his views on issues like affirmative action or abortion, but said he would rule impartially from the bench.
“I have made promises to no one on how I would rule,” Stras said.
Calling Stras “exceptionally well-qualified,” Grassley said he would not allow senators to wield the traditional blue-slip veto over circuit court nominees.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said that she shared many of Franken’s reservations about the administration’s lack of consultation with home-state senators, and that she disagreed with many of Stras’ legal rulings. But she said Stras’ credentials, his support from colleagues in the legal community and his unanimous “well qualified” rating from the American Bar Association had earned him a proper Senate hearing.
Klobuchar introduced Stras to her colleagues as a highly regarded jurist with “distinguished record of public service in our state” and a reputation for collaborating with colleagues like retired Justice Alan Page, whose rulings usually displayed a more traditionally liberal judicial philosophy. Page, along with other former Supreme Court justices, issued a public letter of support for Stras’ confirmation to the Eighth Circuit.
“At this moment … in our history, I believe that in some small way it’s important that we respect those we don’t always agree with,” Klobuchar said. “We must restore that respect for our courts and in this body and in this committee, offer courtesy and cooperation.”
Stras, a Kansas native and University of Kansas Law School graduate, spent several years in private practice in Minnesota and served on the University of Minnesota Law School faculty before becoming a judge. Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2010.
Stras appeared on a shortlist of U.S. Supreme Court candidates being considered by then-candidate Trump last year. A revised list issued this month still names Stras, and now refers to him as an Eighth Circuit judge.
Shortly after his nomination to the appeals court, which is based in St. Louis and covers the District of Minnesota, a wide swath of local legal professionals and former elected officials wrote the state’s senators in support of Stras.
“While he looks at issues from a definite and well-defined perspective, he evaluates legal issues with objectivity and an open mind, traits that are not universal,” read the May letter signed by retired justices Page, Helen Meyer and Paul Anderson. “We found him to be independent and impartial in his approach to the law.”
If confirmed, Stras’ elevation would open the way to fill several additional key federal vacancies in Minnesota. Trump has not announced nominees for U.S. attorney, two federal judgeships or U.S. marshal — some of which have been vacant since May 2016.
It will be several weeks at least before the Senate Judiciary votes on whether to send Stras’ nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. Members will first have a chance to submit written questions to him and review his responses before a vote is scheduled.