The FBI is completing background checks on two judicial candidates drawn from the Twin Cities legal community, placing the Trump administration a step closer to filling key vacancies on Minnesota's federal bench, according to sources close to the vetting.
The two are Hennepin County District Judge Nancy Brasel and Minneapolis attorney and law professor Eric Tostrud, whose candidacies have won the backing of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., respectively.
Meanwhile John Marti, a Twin Cities attorney and former longtime federal prosecutor, has emerged as a leading candidate to replace Andrew Luger as U.S. attorney for Minnesota, the state's top law enforcement official.
And St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson is being vetted for the U.S. marshal opening.
Taken together, the four candidacies suggest that Minnesota is closer to filling four crucial federal justice positions that have been vacant for as long as 18 months.
They also suggest that moderate voices in Minnesota politics, including Paulsen and Klobuchar, proved influential with President Trump, whose choices have drawn controversy in other districts. Just Wednesday, the White House reportedly decided to abandon two judicial nominees in other states who were graded unqualified by the American Bar Association.
The news could spell relief for a federal bench in Minnesota that has been shorthanded since mid-2016. Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said either federal judge candidate would be a strong addition, but also said "our hope is just to get these two positions filled soon."
A spokesperson for Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the senator has underscored the urgency to "fill these important vacancies," and added, "We understand that several qualified applicants are moving through the administration's nominations process."
Brasel served as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota, specializing in fraud and public corruption, before being appointed to the bench by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011. She also spent more than a decade in private practice in the Twin Cities, including as a partner at Greene Espel in Minneapolis from 2002 to 2008.
Tostrud, a partner with the Minneapolis firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen since 1998, has taught and practiced federal law almost exclusively for much of his Minnesota legal career. He has represented clients in cases covering Medicare fraud and federal health law. He has also taught courses on federal legal matters at the University of Minnesota Law School and Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Tostrud also served as finance chairman for Paulsen, a classmate at St. Olaf College, when he ran for office, and has donated nearly $39,000 to Paulsen and his political action committees in the past decade and $10,000 to the Third Congressional District Republican Party last year. Brasel meanwhile donated $1,400 to Klobuchar between 2005 and 2006 while in private practice.
Former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger described Brasel as a "very good judge with a stellar reputation" and said Tostrud would bring valuable knowledge of complex health care law to the federal bench.
Anderson, who has been St. Cloud's police chief since 2012, would replace Sharon Lubinski, who retired last year.
Marti, an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney since 2015, previously served as an acting U.S. attorney and twice as first assistant during his 18 years in the office. He helped lead the prosecution of the $3.5 billion fraud case against Tom Petters and opened a division that focuses on national security cases.
Steve Schleicher, a former federal prosecutor who worked alongside Marti, described him as "one of the most versatile folks you've ever seen." Schleicher predicted that Marti would place a priority on national security and bring a "steady hand" to the office.
At a panel discussion last January, Marti described his outlook for the Justice Department under the new administration. In a video of the discussion, Marti said he expected 80 percent of the work done by the U.S. attorney's office to remain the same, with the possibility of stepped up immigration enforcement under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Still, executing such a pivot in Minnesota would be a challenge, Marti suggested.
"You don't really have a structure or a bench of judges that is open to considering these cases … they don't want to see these cases [and] they don't want to hand down punishments that deal with these cases," Marti said.
In 2007, Marti resigned his management role under former U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose in a controversy over her handling of classified documents that she often left in plain view in her office. An investigation by the Office of Special Counsel later determined that Paulose retaliated against Marti.
Marti, Brasel and Anderson declined to comment for this article. Tostrud could not be reached for comment.
The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis has been led since March by Acting U.S. Attorney Gregory Brooker, who had served as first assistant under Luger. Brooker's term expires in January, at which point Sessions must reappoint him for 120 more days. If a presidentially nominated U.S. attorney is not in place after that, the federal district court must appoint someone until the post is filled.
Marti, a former Marine Corps officer, has apparently emerged from a group of three candidates recommended by Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken earlier this year after a search process led by the senators. Home-state senators customarily advise the White House on the selection of judges and U.S. attorneys. When a state's senators are from the opposite party of the president, senior members of the House delegation may also weigh in.
The Star Tribune reported earlier this year that Minnesota's three Republican congressmen each signed letters of support for Minneapolis attorney Kevin Magnuson for the U.S. attorney position. Paulsen convened a second judicial selection committee shortly after President Trump's election.
Sources said Brasel and Tostrud appeared the closest to possible nominations, as the FBI has already contacted former associates for background check interviews. Heffelfinger, who twice went through this process as a nominee for U.S. attorney, said the move signals that the White House has approved the candidates.
Heffelfinger said the FBI's background review could last up to a month before a report is forwarded to the White House, but it is less clear how long the administration could sit on any names.
Marti met with White House officials earlier this year, according to sources reached by the Star Tribune, before being asked to return to Washington for recent follow-up meetings with senior Justice Department officials. Heffelfinger said any such follow-up interviews would signal that the White House was satisfied with his initial interview and described the step as akin to "the boss interviewing you."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor