An Idaho Falls attorney appeared in front of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as a nominee for a soon-to-be vacant judicial position on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
President Donald Trump nominated Ryan Nelson on May 10 to replace Judge N. Randy Smith, of Pocatello, who plans to take senior status on Aug. 11, his 69th birthday.
Nelson has worked as an attorney for Melaleuca Inc. since 2009, having recently “graduated to emeritus status,” he said. Before that, he worked as special counsel for Supreme Court nominations for members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, as deputy general counsel for the White House Office of Management and Budget, and as deputy assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Democrats on the committee grilled Nelson on several topics, including his views on climate change and LGBT rights as well as his legal work for Melaleuca. Melaleuca is a health and wellness company that sells household products, including detergents, lotions, food, drinks and health supplements, across the world.
Republicans on the committee, including Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, heaped praise on Nelson, citing the breadth of his experience.
Risch introduced Nelson to the panel.
“Ryan has a deep understanding of the unique issues involving land and water that directly impact the West and are so important to our western culture and our western values,” Risch said.
Crapo was also enthusiastic in his support for Nelson.
“Ryan is a proud and distinguished Idahoan from my hometown of Idaho Falls,” Crapo said. “Ryan represents an ideal candidate for our federal courts. He has deep experience serving in the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and even in the international arena.
“Ryan is the kind of nominee to the federal bench we should all support.”
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a classmate of Nelson’s at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, also offered praise for the selection and encouraged confirmation.
“He’s the kind of person that at 3 a.m. writing an appellate brief when you have a deadline coming up doesn’t lose his cool, doesn’t lose his professionalism, and, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t lose his immense talent to express deep, complicated legal concepts in simple terminology,” Lee said.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, noting the the 9th Circuit covers a wide swath of western states that are rich in natural resources, pressed Nelson on his views on climate change. She asked if he agreed and believed human activity contributes to climate change. While qualifying that he’s not a scientist, Nelson said that based on his knowledge, human activity has contributed to climate change.
Democratic committee members Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, and Sen. Christopher Coons, of Delaware, questioned Nelson about his work as general counsel at Melaleuca.
In his questioning, Blumenthal queried Nelson about whether he was consulted by Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot, who Blumenthal said had previously “been accused of funding anti-LGBT causes” before VanderSloot made those contributions.
VanderSloot’s wife Belinda had contributed $100,000 to a 2008 campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California.
Nelson responded that the instances Blumenthal mentioned preceded his tenure with the company by several years and, that during his tenure with the company, he was “not aware of a single penny” going to anti-LGBT causes.
Durbin questioned Nelson about Melaleuca’s business model saying that “At least in its early history, and I hope it was confined to its early history, there were some questions about whether or not this was a pyramid scheme for selling products. Do you know anything about these allegations or any change in corporate policy under your leadership?”
Nelson responded with a full-throated defense of the company.
“I will say this about Melaleuca,” he said. “I’m proud of the work that I did there. I’m proud of what the company has done. There hundreds of thousands of Americans — the little guy — the type of people that you care about, senator, who are getting ahead in life because of the independent business opportunities that that company has provided in a very ethical way.”
Melaleuca officials declined to comment on the senators’ questions about VanderSloot or the company.
Blumenthal and Durbin also questioned Nelson’s ability to keep personal beliefs out of court decisions. Nelson admitted to being a member of the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal organization, for many years.
But Nelson said personal beliefs will not come into play in any of his decisions when he is on the bench.
“I think a good judge will not always agree with the outcomes he reaches in the decisions he makes,” Nelson said. “I think the art of good judging is tethering yourself to the good judgment of the rule of law and the Constitution, so the personal beliefs do not dictate the outcome.”
Information from Idaho Press reporter Betsy Z. Russell is included in this article.
Reporter Marc Basham can be reached at 208-542-6763.