Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, nominated Monday by President Donald Trump to fill a vacancy on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, is described by colleagues as a scholar who can build bridges with colleagues on the bench.
A longtime member of the Federalist Society, a national conservative group, Stras surfaced last year on a list of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees for the new president.
Stras was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2010 by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, and was a law and political science professor at the University of Minnesota from 2004 until his appointment.
A court spokesman said Monday that Stras was not available to comment.
Chuck Webber, a Minneapolis attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels, said Stras did not shy away from siding with more liberal justices such as Alan Page when applying the law.
"He's not beholden to anyone," Webber said.
Stras, 42, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and also for appellate judges in the Ninth and Fourth Circuits. He grew up in Wichita, Kan., and graduated from the University of Kansas School of Law in 1999, where he edited the Kansas Law Review Criminal Procedure Edition.
"He just ticks all the right boxes in terms of the background you want a … nominee to have," Webber said. "He's at an age where he has a lot of energy and can serve a lot of years on the court."
Robin Wolpert, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, called Stras a "person who everyone can get behind."
"He knows how to build bridges, he will be collegial on the court and everyone who goes before him will have a fair chance at justice," said Wolpert, who co-chaired Stras' campaign for re-election to the state Supreme Court.
Stras was among 10 federal judicial nominations announced Monday by Trump, who is looking to fill more than 120 vacancies in the nation's federal appellate and district courts.
Both peers and court watchers alike described Stras as a conservative who defers to the law as its authors intended — not ideology — to shape decisions. In a 2013 dissent, joined by more liberal Justices Helen Meyer and Paul Anderson, Stras wrote that a statute criminalizing false reports of police misconduct violated the First Amendment. Stras warned against construing state law to the point of nearly rewriting it.
"It is our job, by contrast, to interpret, apply, and evaluate criminal statutes as written, not to rewrite legislative enactments to ensure that they survive constitutional scrutiny," Stras wrote.
Stras is also thought to be just the second Jew to become an appellate judge in the Eighth Circuit, after the late Myron Bright. The grandson of a Holocaust survivor, Stras publicly shared his story in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of the "Kristallnacht" wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany before World War II.
"In a sense it's a triumph of the rule of law: a family that emerged from the Holocaust has a grandson that has risen to the highest ranks of the American judiciary," said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. "He has great empathy and … he knows firsthand, at least by story, firsthand the risk to society when the rule of law disintegrates."
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats and both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday that they looked forward to meeting with Stras and reviewing his record. But while Franken called Stras "a committed public servant whose tenure as a professor … underscores how much he cares about the law," he criticized the White House selection process.
Franken said Stras' nomination was "the product of a process that relied heavily on guidance from far-right Washington, D.C.-based special interest groups — rather than through a committee made up of a cross-section of Minnesota's legal community."
Franken's statement was a reference to such groups as the Federalist Society in shaping recent judicial picks, including newly confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The White House counsel, Don McGahn, told the New York Times that the selection of Stras and others vindicated Trump's campaign pledge "to appoint strong and principled jurists to the federal bench who will enforce the Constitution's limits on federal power and protect the liberty of all Americans."
U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, who described Stras "as one of Minnesota's foremost legal minds with outstanding credentials," said the justice was a deserving appointee. Paulsen and fellow Republican Minnesota Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis sent letters to Trump recommending Stras for the Eighth Circuit, Paulsen said Monday.
"Throughout his career in both the classroom and the courtroom, Justice Stras has displayed a thoughtful, fair-minded approach to the law that has been reflected during his tenure on the Minnesota Supreme Court," Paulsen said in a statement Monday.
Minnesota also has two district court vacancies, considered "judicial emergencies" because of the district's heavy caseload. A Paulsen spokesman said the congressman has interviewed "all the candidates suggested to him" by a committee's review and would "be making his recommendations to the White House soon."
Any nominees face an unclear timeline toward winning Senate confirmation, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who tracks judicial selection. Tobias estimated that, at best, the Senate could hold two hearings monthly to consider as many as four district and one appellate nominees at each hearing.
"It gets difficult to even project when these people nominated today can get hearings," Tobias said Monday. "I don't think it's going to be soon."