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Erickson a Court of Appeals justice

By Staff | Mar 30, 2018

(Submitted photo) N.D. Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle (right) administers the oath of office to Ralph Erickson (left), who was nominated by President Donald Trump to a seat on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Also pictured: Erickson’s wife, Michelle.

Although he was born in Thief River Falls, Minn., Ralph Erickson considers himself a Rugby native.

In an investiture ceremony held in Fargo earlier this month where he was the guest of honor, Erickson said that to understand him is to understand Rugby.

“That little town of about 3,000 people molded me, formed me and taught me how to be a man,” Erickson said.

Erickson moved to Rugby from Langdon in 1966, when his father took an assistant county executive director position with the Pierce County Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service (what is now the Farm Service Agency). He started school in the second grade and graduated from Rugby High School in 1977.

“So to me Rugby is home and always will be,” Erickson said.

Forty years after graduating from RHS, Erickson was nominated and went through confirmation hearings and votes for a judgeship in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which covers North and South Dakota, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska. President Donald Trump nominated Erickson to the seat, which had been vacated by Kermit Bye, in June 2017.

Erickson said he had been interviewed prior to the nomination by a dozen lawyers from the White House and the Department of Justice.

“My sense leaving the interview was that I really liked the people that I had a chance to talk to and that even if it didn’t work out it was a pretty amazing place for a kid from Rugby to end up,” Erickson said.

A few weeks later Erickson received a call from an associate White House counsel that the president was interested in vetting him for nomination.

“The overwhelming emotion that I was filled with when they told me I was the president’s choice was ‘Boy I sure hope I’m smart enough to do this job,'” said Erickson. “And gratitude. It is a very humbling thing to have the president offer you a chance to sit on the second highest court in the country.”

Erickson said the hearing process was “remarkably stressful,” with background checks and an extensive Senate Judiciary questionnaire in addition to a hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 20-0 to approve Erickson and the next step in the process was a vote by the Senate as a whole.

Erickson was voted in by a 95-1 vote.

As the floor debate and vote took place, Erickson was in a trial and after its adjournment received a message to call White House Counsel Don McGahn. McGahn congratulated Erickson on both his and the president’s behalf.

From lawyer to judge

Erickson said there was a period when he was in sixth grade where he said he wanted to be a lawyer.

But it was around his junior year of college when law school started to come into focus. And at that time he had never been inside a courtroom.

“I knew some lawyers and judges from Rugby, but really I had no clue as to what lawyers did,” Erickson said.

Erickson credits Judge Ray Freiderich and John McClintock, Sr., as his biggest motivators to become a lawyer.

Erickson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Jamestown College in 1980 and went on to law school at the University of North Dakota, graduating in 1984.

He was in private practice for 10 years, and served as a magistrate judge for Cass County from 1993 to 1994.

Erickson said there is a steep adjustment going from being a lawyer to a judge.

“I was lucky because by nature I’m a bit more judicial than lawyerly,” said Erickson. “In fact I had a partner tell me when I was new associate, ‘You have to realize you’re a lawyer not the judge.'”

In 1994 Erickson became a county judge for Traill, Steele, Nelson and Griggs counties. In 1995 he became the judge for the East Central Judicial District a post he held until 2003.

In 2003 he was appointed by President George W. Bush to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota. He served as chief judge for the district from November 2009 to November 2016.

On the bench

Erickson has presided over several trials over the years.

He was a judge on the Waters of the United States case.

He presided over the first capital case tried in North Dakota in over a century; a live broadcast murder trial in State of North Dakota v. Garcia; a tobacco case in Florida that resulted in a large tobacco verdict in federal courts.

Erickson said his most memorable work has been with kids in juvenile court, “Indian Country” (a technical term in the U.S. Code for all reservation and treaty lands) cases, and family courts.

“All of this work is memorable for the same reason,” said Erickson. “It’s an opportunity to do the greatest good. To make our little corner of the world a bit better.

“The best part about being a judge is when you get a chance to make our community a better community.”

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