The Honorable Eric Tostrud ’87, U.S. District Court judge for the District of Minnesota, is guided by his abiding faith and an enduring commitment to public service and the rule of law.
Eric Tostrud’s first job out of law school in 1990 was clerking for Judge Edward Devitt of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, the judgeship that Tostrud now holds after being appointed to the bench in 2018.
“If there is such a thing as a world-famous district judge, Edward Devitt was it,” Tostrud says. “He was a wonderful, selfless, dedicated public servant, and he taught me how to do this job.”
In 1961, Devitt penned an article for the American Bar Association, “Ten Commandments for the New Judge,” as a guide for 73 newly appointed federal judges. The commandments are still the go-to source for how judges should conduct themselves on the job, Tostrud says, and “I was lucky enough to learn from Devitt himself.” Devitt’s advice ranged from “Be prompt, be kind, and be dignified” to “Be patient,” “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” and “A lazy judge is a poor judge.”
It didn’t take long for Tostrud to realize he might someday want to do Devitt’s job.
“About a month after working for him, I thought, ‘He’s got the greatest job in the world,’ ” Tostrud says. “But I never thought the opportunity would come.”
It did, 28 years later.
By then, Tostrud had distinguished himself as a practicing attorney and a law professor, and he was ready to follow in the footsteps of his mentor.
Now in command of his own courtroom, Tostrud embodies many of the principles laid out by Devitt. Sitting in his chambers in the Warren E. Burger Federal Building in downtown St. Paul, Tostrud is warm and welcoming, engaging but serious. He mulls over questions quietly before answering them, turning his head to glance at the snow falling outside the window on a cold November morning.
That thoughtfulness is a trait he has passed on to his own law clerks, says Megan Odom, an associate attorney for the firm of Ciresi Conlin who clerked for Tostrud during his first year on the bench.
“Judge Tostrud conveyed to me that some of my most valuable time is spent in thought,” Odom says. “That sounds so obvious, but as lawyers, we often have a compulsion to be constantly researching or writing or strategizing. He taught me that in order to work through a case, it’s not a waste of time to just sit and think. Doing so has helped me find the wrinkles in cases and to not rush into a decision.”
As Tostrud reminisced about his days at St. Olaf, it didn’t take long to realize that his time on the Hill shaped who he is today. He was the first in a long line of Tostruds to follow in the footsteps of his parents, Jerrol Tostrud ’60 and Alleen Christian Tostrud ’61. His sister Karen Tostrud Hoffman ’89 and brother Jon Tostrud ’91 are Oles, as are his wife, Laurie Sagedahl Tostrud ’89, and both of his children, Elsa Tostrud ’17 and Ty Tostrud ’19.
“I’d do anything to be at St. Olaf again,” says Tostrud, who majored in political science and speech and competed on the varsity golf team. “I was surrounded by people of faith who were fun, smart, and hardworking. They pushed me to be my best self.”
Lars Erdahl ’87 first met Tostrud in a speech class during sophomore year. They became friends and part of a tightknit group of guys who served as JCs in Kildahl Hall during their junior year and roomed together in Huggenvik House as seniors.
“Eric was focused and serious about academics, so we’d razz him about being so studious,” says Erdahl, an educator who has worked for the Minnesota Zoo and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. “Eric knew how to have fun, too, but he knew when it was time to lock himself away to get serious about schoolwork.”
Erdahl notes that there were early indications that Tostrud might make a good lawyer.
“One of the things that St. Olaf taught us was how to argue about issues in an intelligent way,” Erdahl says. “We wouldn’t always agree, but we learned from each other. Eric was always in the mix of those smart conversations.”
Tostrud, meanwhile, was thinking he’d become a high school social studies teacher and coach, although going into law or the ministry alternated between “second and third on my list,” he says. He’d had an inkling about his future during a class on constitutional law taught by the late political science professor Charles Umbanhower Sr.
“He designed the course to be like a first-year law school course,” Tostrud says. “I liked that he had high expectations of us. I enjoyed the topic and the rigor of the class and had a sense that maybe I could survive in law school.”
Tostrud did more than survive. He started at William Mitchell College of Law in the fall of 1987 after graduating cum laude from St. Olaf, choosing that path because “I thought it would be easier to go another direction later rather than attend law school years down the road,” he says.
After struggling early on, studying the law became a passion for Tostrud. “Somewhere along the way, something clicked, and I really fell in love with the role law plays in society,” he says. “I gained a deeper understanding of the fact that we are a nation governed by the rule of law, not by people.”
Tostrud graduated summa cum laude from William Mitchell in 1990 and was admitted to the Minnesota bar that same year.
After completing his second clerkship in 1992 — with Judge George E. MacKinnon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — Tostrud returned to Minnesota to begin a 27-year career at the Minneapolis law firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen. He was made a partner of the firm in 1998 and was of counsel from 2015 until his appointment to the federal bench.
Tostrud represented plaintiffs and defendants in large, complex civil litigation matters in federal courts across the country. He practiced in a variety of areas, including intellectual property, antitrust, securities, and general commercial litigation. His cases often involved claims in the areas of health care, fraud, insurance coverage, and financial services. In pro bono work, he litigated cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims on behalf of disabled veterans, and provided representation and assistance in Minnesota through the Federal Bar Association Pro Se Project.
Judge Devitt had taught him that there are no unimportant cases, and Tostrud took that lesson to heart.
“If you’re party to a litigation, whether you’re a defendant or plaintiff in a criminal or civil case, that’s the most important thing going on in your life at the time,” he says. “As an attorney, I’m in a close relationship with my clients during a very stressful time, so it’s important to me that I’m not just writing and arguing in court. I’m counseling people, and it’s always satisfying to achieve a good result in their favor.”
In 1993, Tostrud began teaching at William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law) as an adjunct professor and has taught at the University of Minnesota Law School since 2011. He served on Mitchell Hamline’s Board of Trustees from 2006 to 2015, at which time he began teaching full time at the school as a distinguished practitioner in residence.
Tostrud’s areas of teaching included legal writing, the federal courts, federal jurisdiction, and complex litigation, among others.
“I’ve had to really learn the law to be able to teach it, and that has helped me immeasurably in my career,” he says. He also notes that taking a deep dive into the law presents many opportunities for debate about what the law should be. “I enjoy facilitating discussion, as well as occasionally weighing in on the issue at hand.”
Odom, Tostrud’s former law clerk, took courses on advanced civil procedure, electronic discovery, and the business of lawyering from Tostrud at Mitchell Hamline. She agrees that a careful reading of the rules of law is important to him. “He was such a good professor,” she says. “He taught me that when questions arise, I should always reread the applicable law, and to not assume I know what it says,” she says. “He has a pocket U.S. Constitution that he’ll take out and read on the airplane when he’s bored, and I think the man probably reads the rules of civil procedure for fun.”
In the fall of 2016, after two federal judgeships opened up in Minnesota, Tostrud began the long road toward a District Judge appointment by applying to two separate judicial selection committees — one established by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and the other by U.S. Congressman Erik Paulsen ’87. All of 2017 was taken up with information gathering, interviews, committee hearings, and background checks.
“It’s an extensive political process. So much of it is beyond your control, and there are no guarantees that you’ll make it to the next step,” Tostrud says. “The best advice I received was to manage my expectations but to also not leave anything on the table. If I wanted this job, I couldn’t be shy about it.”
His efforts paid off, and in February 2018, Tostrud was nominated to the federal bench by President Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination by unanimous voice vote on September 6, and he was sworn in as U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Minnesota on September 14, 2018.
Ironically, Tostrud had taught a course about the judicial nomination process prior to going through it himself. “If I could go back, I’d say that the information in that class was a good start, but here’s how it really works,” he says with a chuckle.
In just over a year in the job, Tostrud has learned there is no typical day in the office. He has overseen many hearings in a wide variety of civil and criminal matters, such as employment and patent law disputes and police brutality cases.
“I’ve had weeks that included writing opinions in complex civil cases, hearing motions in other civil cases, and taking guilty pleas or changes of pleas in criminal cases,” Tostrud says. “Then on one Friday night, I performed the marriage ceremony of one of my law clerks. That’s an added bonus of the job.”
Tostrud remains close to the Oles with whom he forged deep friendships during his time on the Hill. His closest friend and roommate for four years, Scott Jenson ’87, later served in the Peace Corps in Lesotho with his wife, Barbara Kloeck, and became a tireless crusader for peace and justice around the world. Jenson was pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Wisconsin when he and Kloeck and their two young children were tragically killed in a car accident while on vacation in South Africa in 1999.
“Their deaths were very hard on all of us,” Tostrud says. “We were so young, and to lose all of them like that was just awful.” After hearing the news, he and Erdahl met at St. Olaf and wandered around campus, when Erdahl wondered “who would carry on Scott’s work?”
That question sparked an idea, and in 2001, Jenson’s family, together with Tostrud and Erdahl and their wives, created what is now known as the Scott Kloeck-Jenson Endowment for Social Impact Scholars. The fund today supports student opportunities for social entrepreneurship and public service.
“We wanted to create more Scotts,” Tostrud says. “To give students the opportunity to examine worldwide issues and challenges and to be pragmatic in figuring out ways to approach and solve those problems.”
To honor their friend, Erdahl and Tostrud have met each year on Jenson’s birthday and the anniversary of his death. “One of the things I most admire about Eric is his steadfastness in his relationships,” Erdahl says.
Tostrud is also steadfast in his faith. When asked if he has a deeply held belief or value that guides him, he answers immediately: “The Gospel is not a call to service of self, it’s a call to service of others.” His declaration recalls to mind one of Judge Devitt’s commandments for new judges: “If you believe in a Supreme Being, you should pray for divine guidance. Judges need that help more than anyone else,” though Tostrud is quick to add “I cannot allow principles of faith or my own biases to infect my decision-making.” To this day, Tostrud remains grateful to St. Olaf and his close friends and fellow students for a life-changing education that started him down the path to his dream job.