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Ramstad 's judgeships: Going where few have gone
Published Dec 2 2001
When U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad recommended his sister and two other candidates for a lifetime federal judgeship a few weeks ago, he was stepping into political territory that isn't well-traveled.
Scholars and others familiar with federal appointments say although they are political, they don't often involve relatives recommending relatives.
"People are appointed because of who they know," said Linda Maule, assistant professor of political science at Indiana State University and co-author of a book about recruiting state and federal judges. Although appointments of relatives aren't unprecedented, there aren't many cases of someone putting a sibling on a short list, she said.
Early last month, Ramstad sent President Bush the names of state Corrections Commissioner Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Ericksen Lancaster and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Hopeman.
Ramstad explained that he recommended the three most qualified candidates out of a list of five selected by a committee.
"I can assure you that Sheryl Ramstad Hvass is treated no better or no worse because she happens to be related to me. ... I was simply asked by the administration to make recommendations," he said.
The judgeship will open in February, when U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson goes on senior status, which means that he'll have a lighter caseload. The perk of recommending people for federal judgeships and other appointments usually goes to a senator of the same political party as the president. But because both Minnesota senators are Democrats, the clout sits with Ramstad, the senior Republican in Minnesota's congressional delegation.
Jim Farrell, a spokesman for Sen. Paul Wellstone, said, "All the names sent forward by the congressman to the White House appear to be well qualified."
If Bush were to nominate Ramstad Hvass, it would follow two other Bush nominations of congressional members' relatives: The son of Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., awaits confirmation for a lifetime federal judgeship in that state. The son of Sen. Strom Thurmond took office last month as U.S. attorney in South Carolina.
"It's pretty unusual," said Sheldon Goldman, a Massachusetts political science professor who wrote a book on selecting federal judges. "What this suggests is the return of nepotism." But, he said, "if a relative of a member of Congress happens also to be really well qualified, why should that person be at a disadvantage?"
Ramstad Hvass has said she was "not in a position to comment on anything."
In addition to her corrections commissioner post, Ramstad Hvass was a municipal judge in Hennepin County from 1982 to '86 and a federal prosecutor from 1978 to '81. She was president of the state Bar Association, lost a tight race for Hennepin County attorney and worked as an assistant Hennepin County public defender.
All three candidates have been adjunct professors at Minnesota law schools. Ericksen Lancaster was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1998 and is a former assistant U.S. attorney. Hopeman is known for his role as an assistant U.S. attorney, in which he prosecuted the case of drug kingpin Ralph (Plukey) Duke.
Picking the names
State Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, said he thinks all three candidates are qualified. If Ramstad Hvass gets the nomination, he said he thinks it "would be well-received in the end. I hope it wouldn't be received overly critically."
Former GOP Sen. David Durenberger said suggesting people for lifetime appointments to federal judgeships is the "most important thing a senator does." He said he doesn't believe the sibling relationship influenced Ramstad's recommendation.
This wouldn't be the first appointment of a relative in Minnesota. Former Gov. Arne Carlson appointed his sister-in-law to a judgeship in Washington County, for instance.
Although Ramstad didn't use a merit-selection committee when recommending candidates for U.S. attorney for Minnesota, he said he used a committee to narrow candidates this time because he "wanted to avoid the appearance of conflict here."
That committee, which included former Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Kelley, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Douglas Amdahl, and St. Paul Companies attorney M. Jacqueline Regis, narrowed 19 candidates to five. That list included former Hennepin County District Judge Richard Solum and Minneapolis attorney Gary Haugen.
Ramstad, a staff member and a member of the committee interviewed the candidates, and Ramstad submitted the names of the final three. Each interviewed last month at the White House.
Senators could sway
Before the president's pick could take the post, he or she would need a nod from the Senate, which would likely look to Minnesota's senators for guidance. They haven't made their opinions known.
"Senator Wellstone will soon be conveying his views" on those candidates to the White House, his spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Dayton said last week that Dayton notified the White House that he had "no objections to them proceeding to the next step of the process," which could include background checks. He hasn't determined whether he'll support the White House's nominee, spokeswoman Sara Howard said.
When President Bill Clinton nominated the son of federal Appeals Court Judge Betty Fletcher to an Appeals Court post, Senate Republicans said a parent and child couldn't be on the same court under an anti-nepotism law, according to an Associated Press report in 1998. Fletcher agreed to take senior status so her son could get the nod.
"I would think the Democratic Party might pick up on it and use it as a way of at least delaying the appointment," said Maule, the Indiana State University professor.
Weighing family ties
Marcia Kuntz, director of the judicial selection project for the nonprofit Alliance for Justice, said we "question ... why the administration should select somebody who raises questions of nepotism when we believe there is a broad pool of people who are highly qualified and don't raise these issues."
Former Hennepin County Attorney Gary Flakne, who worked on campaigns with Ramstad Hvass, said he thinks it would be "unfair" to automatically disqualify her because of her relationship.
"Goodness gracious, she's got credentials," he said. "I don't think it should preclude her from having her name submitted." And, he pointed out, Ramstad was simply recommending candidates; Bush nominates.
"I recommended the three most highly qualified candidates from the merit selection panel's list of five," Ramstad said. "I just hope that the White House treats her no better and no worse because she happens to be related to me."
Pam Louwagie is at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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