Alumni Interrogatory: Judge Joan Ericksen ’81
U.S. District Judge and Member of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Balances Dual Roles with Dedication and Distinction
When U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts nominated Judge Joan Ericksen ’81 to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) this past April, she did not hesitate to add it to her already-full plate as a senior U.S. district judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.
“This is really important work that has to be done by judges who have experience in applying different burdens of proof,” she says of FISC, which reviews requests for surveillance warrants submitted by the U.S. government for foreign intelligence purposes. “The mission is to ensure that protection of national security adheres to the rule of law and the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. I consider it an honor to serve in this capacity.”
A Penchant for Trial Practice
Ericksen did not plan a career path to the bench. She had intended to pursue a Ph.D. in English but decided law school gave her more options. She earned her J.D. and went to work for a firm that represented municipalities. “I was lucky to have 20 some misdemeanor trials in two years,” Ericksen says. “Thank goodness I had taken Trial Practice in law school. Rules of evidence came naturally to me, and I liked how they provided a way to organize otherwise unmanageable information. I knew I wanted to do more trial work.”
One late evening in the office, Ericksen found herself flipping through an edition of Minnesota Lawyer. She saw an advertisement for Assistant U.S. Attorneys and thought the position looked interesting. “I just went to a typewriter, typed up a resume, sent it in, and ultimately was interviewed and hired. I had no idea that these positions were hard to get. I was a little clueless about the whole process.”
She stayed with the U.S. Attorneys’ Office for ten years, serving first in the civil division and then on the criminal side where she was in charge of white-collar crime and tried Minnesota’s first RICO case. In 1993, she returned to private practice to work on high stakes civil litigation. “My most memorable case was a lawsuit related to a fire in a cold storage warehouse in Madison, Wisconsin, where 11 million pounds of butter ran down the streets,” she recalls. “I practiced my opening for days in front of my four-year-old son.”
A New Path to the Bench
Ericksen’s time in private practice ended in 1995 when Governor Arne Carlson appointed her to the 4th Judicial District Court for Hennepin County. Just three years later, he appointed her to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, but before she was sworn in, a position opened on the Minnesota Supreme Court and Carlson appointed her to the state’s highest court.
Four years later, President George W. Bush nominated her for her first federal appointment: the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. “It was a very intense process because it’s national,” Ericksen says. “Competition is vigorous, and politics are involved. Getting ready for confirmation is unlike anything I’d had to do before. You have to unearth every speech you’ve given, every thought you’ve committed to paper. And on top of that, I had to pay for my own travel to my interview. It cost me 50,000 frequent flyer miles to fly to D.C. for a job I didn’t know if I’d get!”
She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a 99-0 vote on April 25, 2002.
A Commitment to Mentoring
Over the years, Ericksen has always found time to teach and meet with students. “I had great mentors and training at the University of Minnesota so I’m eager to give back,” she says. “I try to help students learn that there are so many ways to be effective in a courtroom. I take pleasure in seeing them come to understand that they could have a courtroom presence that is in sync with their true self, that confidence and comfort come with mastering your tools. I want them to understand that in a search for the truth or a resolution of an intractable problem, it’s not about what you look like. You are here in service to something greater.”