David Stras saw this coming — at least to a point.
The now-former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, who this week became the first Minnesota federal judge confirmed under President Donald Trump, has closely studied a judicial selection process viewed as increasingly politicized and saddled by interest group influence.
But Stras now represents part of a new chapter being analyzed by court-watchers: his is the first federal appellate nomination to advance over the objection of a home-state senator in at least 30 years.
For the balance of the past year, Stras has been in the unusual position of law buff whose own nomination is the subject of scrutiny. At times, he doubted whether he would ever join the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Minnesota and six other states. Other times, he received an outpouring of bipartisan support from the local legal community.
“Academically speaking, I understood it,” Stras said of the process this week in his first interview since his nomination last May. “[But] theoretically understanding something and actually understanding it are two very different things.”
It proved a tense, protracted wait until, abruptly, it wasn’t.
Within hours of celebrating with family after Tuesday’s 56-42 Senate vote, Stras returned to the Minnesota Judicial Center to box up his office of seven years. His cell phone buzzed with calls from court officials plotting the logistics of his new chambers and hashing out the details of his appointment to be sworn in later that afternoon.
Stras formally leaves behind a tenure during which he considered cases ranging from the constitutionality of Minnesota’s DWI test refusal law to free speech rights — forging unexpected alliances in the process. He joins a federal judiciary that is being dramatically reshaped, with his youth (43) and backing by influential conservative groups like the Federalist Society keeping him in the mix of potential U.S. Supreme Court candidates.
A native Kansan, Stras initially found his way into law through a television screen as a child, captivated by “Perry Mason” re-runs.
But his grandfather’s stories of surviving the Holocaust put into stark relief a more compelling pull toward the profession. Reluctant until recent years to tell his family’s story, Stras has since seemingly opened a vein after a 2013 local exhibit on Jewish lawyers in Nazi Germany. He is considering writing a book, delivered speeches at the state capitol and to affinity groups like the Cardozo Society — a Jewish legal consortium — and penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal describing how branches of his family tree were cut short in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I think one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about public service is my grandfather talked about how important it was not to be silent,” Stras said. “And how important — these are the exact words he used — to serve your fellow man. That has stuck with me over the course of my entire life.”
Viewed as a conservative jurist with an “originalist” approach to interpreting law “as written” — a common phrase in his opinions — Stras nonetheless identifies two very different judges as shaping his philosophy.
Stras counts conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom he clerked in the early 2000s, as a mentor and close friend. Meanwhile, Stras was joined on roughly a third of his Minnesota Supreme Court dissents by retired Justice Alan Page, one of the court’s more progressive justices who helped orient Stras when he was appointed at just 35.
“Justice Page said, and Justice Thomas had a variation of this: ‘We can’t always be right … the least we can do is be consistent,” Stras said.
Stras’ move to a new court building coincided with his wife, Heather, becoming a licensed clinical social worker to help patients with addiction issues. Their son, Brandon, 17, a Wayzata High senior is weighing college options, and their youngest, Ben, 10, alternates between basketball and soccer.
“We’ve got a lot of new stuff going on,” Stras said.
‘People know him’
Those close to Stras say his appearance on then-candidate Trump’s shortlist of U.S. Supreme Court nominees caught him by surprise.
Months later, his Eighth Circuit nomination was hurled into uncertainty after former Sen. Al Franken refused to return the customary “blue slip” expressing consent for a Senate hearing for Stras.
Franken pointed to a “lack of meaningful consultation” with the White House over the nomination, coupled with the role of conservative legal groups in advising the judicial selection process, to explain his objection.
“There were times, not that I wanted to withdraw, but that I wasn’t sure it would go through,” Stras said. “I don’t want to get too far into this over the motives, but the day the blue slip wasn’t returned, that was a hard day.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, broke with recent custom to move Stras along to a hearing last November. Amid the controversy, former justices like Page and more than 100 Minnesota attorneys of varied political stripes wrote in support of Stras.
“I think it boils down to people know him and see him as a fair-minded person,” said Charlie Nauen, a prominent Democractic-Farmer-Labor party attorney who also managed Stras’ 2012 Minnesota Supreme Court campaign. “You can’t pigeonhole him in one way.”
William McGeveran, a University of Minnesota law professor who worked with Stras, disagrees with Stras’ “textualist” judicial philosophy and said he favors a more liberal worldview. But McGeveran said he backed his ex-colleague’s nomination after long appreciating Stras’ capacity to surprise by how he votes.
“If you’re a progressive with a president you disagree with you have two choices,” McGeveran said. “You can get a conservative judge with intellectual integrity and a judicial temperament or you can get the opposite.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who introduced Stras at his committee hearing last year reiterated her support for Stras’ qualifications in voting alongside and handful of other Democrats to confirm the judge.
Later that evening while delivering the State of the Union address, noting that his administration had placed a record 13 federal appeals court judges in his first year, Trump celebrated “appointing judges who will interpret the Constitution as written.”
Leonard Leo, vice president of the Federalist Society and an influential advisor to the president on judicial selection, in a recent Newsweek commentary meanwhile described Stras as a “leading conservative intellectual” and said he and other recently appointed judges would “shape the law for two generations.”
Franken’s replacement, Sen. Tina Smith, met with Stras last month before voting against him Tuesday over concerns that he would use his “textualist” approach “to justify deciding against Minnesotans facing difficult circumstances.”
Smith pointed to Stras’ dissent in a case that required an insurance company to fully compensate a child injured in a school bus crash. That same case was also raised by Stras in his responses to senators last year as an example of applying precedent contrary to his personal views.
In an interview last week, Stras said he “hated that result but ... felt like that was what the law required.”
“You can’t just pick winners and losers,” Stras said. “You can’t pick one side because you think that side should win. You actually have to apply the law ... and apply the law fairly and impartially.”