Minnesota's two federal judicial nominees inched closer to confirmation with a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, fielding questions about their experience and whether they could set aside views on divisive subjects to apply legal precedents should they reach the federal bench.
Introducing Hennepin County District Judge Nancy Brasel and Mitchell Hamline law professor Eric Tostrud at Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar called the occasion "a happy day" and said, "we are especially excited because we have two nominees from Minnesota."
Minnesota's federal court district has been short two full-time federal judges since 2016. President Donald Trump nominated Brasel and Tostrud in February after a long search process that included selection committees commissioned by both of Minnesota's Democratic senators before the 2016 election and, later, another led by Rep. Erik Paulsen, Minnesota's senior Republican congressman.
Paulsen, with whom Tostrud is close, attended Wednesday's hearing, as did Sen. Tina Smith, who delivered introductory remarks of her own.
"Today's nominees carry with them not just a wealth of legal experience but also a really deep understanding of our state, which I appreciate so much," Smith said.
Both nominees were rated as "well-qualified" by the American Bar Association, Klobuchar said. Brasel's background bucks that of many Trump nominees: She was appointed to the Hennepin County court by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011, and she donated to Klobuchar's campaign coffers more than a decade ago while in private practice.
Both Klobuchar and Smith highlighted Brasel's experience as a federal prosecutor, volunteer work with domestic abuse victims and her efforts to pilot Hennepin County's infant court team that serves at-risk infants and their caregivers.
Klobuchar later asked Brasel how she believed her experience as a prosecutor would prepare her for returning to a federal courtroom in a vastly different capacity. Brasel, whose work centered on narcotics and white-collar prosecutions, described a prosecution of a Sinaloa drug cartel conspiracy as a crash course in navigating federal sentencing guidelines.
"I think sentencing is one of the most important jobs a U.S. District Court judge does, and I think that experience helps as I go forward," Brasel said.
Klobuchar also highlighted Tostrud's experience as a private attorney with the Lockridge Grindal Nauen firm and his work at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where students voted him "professor of the year" for two straight terms.
Tostrud, who clerked for the late U.S. District Court Judge Edward Devitt, quoted his mentor while describing having represented scores of clients in cases that amounted to "the most important thing going on in their life."
"Judge Devitt used to say there are no unimportant cases," Tostrud said. "And I definitely learned that not just working from him, but in practice as well."
With family in attendance and watching back home, Brasel and Tostrud took questions alongside two other nominees from Louisiana after a panel that considered a federal appellate court nominee. The sharpest scrutiny was reserved for New Orleans lawyer Wendy Vitter over her past remarks against abortion rights and her omission of details from a Senate questionnaire.
After watching Wednesday's hearing, Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who closely follows judicial selection, predicted a smooth committee vote for Brasel and Tostrud within "several weeks" followed by full Senate confirmation. Confirmation may take longer, Tobias said, because there are numerous other nominees ahead of them awaiting votes.
But, Tobias said, "when both parties work with the White House to have strong consensus nominees, the process works well."
Before Wednesday's hearing finished, Klobuchar thanked both Minnesota nominees for a "job well done" and expressed pleasure at how a "really bipartisan process in Minnesota ... produced two very good nominees."
But the candidates weren't off the hook just yet: Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., concluded by asking if the nominees believed school segregation was good social policy — regardless of what U.S. Supreme Court precedent mandated.
Brasel found herself in the uncomfortable position of going first.
"It simply is not my role here to comment on social policy, the U.S. Supreme Court has told me ..."
"I'm not asking you about precedent," Kennedy interrupted. "I'm just asking you, do you believe 'separate but equal' is good policy for our schools?"
"I do not believe that it is good policy for our schools," Brasel said.
Moments later, Tostrud and the other two nominees quickly echoed her answer.