President Trump's nominee to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals earned rare bipartisan praise at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination.
Judge Ralph Erickson, a federal district court judge from North Dakota, was introduced at the committee hearings by North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat. Heitkamp praised the Trump nominee to the Midwestern federal appeals court and said she offered her "highest recommendation" of Erickson.
"I'm proud to sit here today and recommend him for this seat," Heitkamp said. "He is widely respected by both Democrats and Republicans in my home state."
Hoeven lauded Erickson as "incredibly qualified" and "deeply respected because of his integrity."
Erickson told the committee he viewed himself as the "luckiest man" to have served on the courts in North Dakota because he has had experience at nearly every level including sitting on a traffic court. Asked about his judging philosophy, Erickson emphasized that he thought it was important not to get hung up on individual theories.
"At the end of the day, I think intellectual honesty requires as a judge just to do the work as best we can [and] not be so wedded to any individual theory that it trumps reason," Erickson said. "Kind of my philosophy is you follow the law, follow the law, follow the law right up until the point that it looks completely crazy and then you say hold on, wait a minute, stop."
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois raised questions about Erickson's view of potential conflicts between religious liberty and individual rights. Durbin talked about a speech that Erickson made to his fellow Catholics in North Dakota about freedom of conscience and the religious liberty of healthcare providers in 2013.
"I don't believe judges are robots," Durbin said. "What I hear you saying in this presentation while you were a sitting judge is that 'my conscience trumps all.' And perhaps that is a very bold and honest answer, but it goes beyond the basic that you start with: it's the Constitution, it's the law, there's no personal input. Please explain."
Erickson answered that he was sharing the views of others in his speech and PowerPoint presentation and not detailing his own positions.
"Judges are not automatons — we do the best we can," Erickson told Durbin. "I have done what was required of me when it was easy and when it was very hard."
Erickson also won support from Democratic senators in regards to comments he made about his personal struggle overcoming alcoholism and in adjudicating cases involving Native Americans.
"May I ask you how long you've been in recovery?" asked Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.
"It's over 26 years, Nov. 10, 1990, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, sir," Erickson answered.
"Bravo," interjected Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
"OK, what happened at 3:59?" Franken replied to Erickson amid laughter throughout the room. "That was a joke."
"Should I take the Fifth now?" Erickson said.
Franken then talked about how he found Erickson's testimony "very moving," particularly in dealing with the sentencing of Native Americans.
"We need more alcoholics in our courts. Certainly in this circuit," Franken said, smiling. "Oh, oh recovering, recovering. Not active alcoholics, yes. I don't want to confuse anyone here."