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Ryan Nelson, general counsel for Melaleuca in Idaho Falls, won narrow approval on an 11-10 party-line vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday for his nomination to serve on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nelson’s nomination now moves to the full Senate for approval; U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho have strongly supported the nomination.

Opposition came from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which submitted a three-page letter to the Senate committee decrying Nelson as “a conservative ideologue who has advanced a right-wing policy and litigation agenda throughout his career,” adding, “His anti-environmental record is of particular concern.”Story continues below video

Crapo’s press secretary, Robert Sumner, said, “Senator Crapo disagrees with the views of the group on Ryan Nelson’s nomination. Given his experience and qualifications, the senator is confident Nelson will make an excellent appellate judge if confirmed by the full Senate.”

Among the concerns the group raised about Nelson: In 2003, as an attorney in private practice, Nelson filed an amicus brief in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court disability rights case, Tennessee v. Lane, in which he argued on behalf of seven states against claims from a paraplegic plaintiff who had to crawl up two flights of stairs to reach a courtroom, because the courthouse had no elevator.

“A government’s failure to make a public building satisfy modern standards of accessibility does not violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as long as that failure had a rational basis — which cost considerations alone will almost always provide,” Nelson wrote in the brief. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and ruled for the plaintiffs.

The group also noted Nelson’s work while he was with the U.S. Justice Department from 2006 to 2008 to “roll back environmental protections,” and said he “cannot be trusted to be an impartial fact-finder, especially in environmental disputes.”

The group also cited Nelson’s work joining in a brief in 2004 arguing that inmates at Guantanamo Bay had no right to challenge their detention in court; the Supreme Court found otherwise.

“Ryan is widely recognized by his peers for his judgment and legal acumen and will serve our nation well once he is confirmed to the 9th Circuit,” Crapo said in a statement after the committee vote. “I look forward to seeing Ryan’s nomination come before the full Senate, where I will strongly advocate for his confirmation.”

Added Risch, “Ryan’s experience and background make him an excellent fit for this position and I look forward to supporting his nomination on the Senate floor.”

Nelson is a graduate of Brigham Young University law school and has been general counsel for Melaleuca, the firm headed by prominent GOP activist and fundraiser Frank VanderSloot, since 2009. Prior to that, Nelson worked as an assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division of the U.S. Department of Justice, a position in which he oversaw 500 appellate cases and personally argued 13 appeals in nine different circuits.

He also served as special counsel for Supreme Court nominations on the GOP staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the same panel that voted on his confirmation Thursday — and served as a deputy general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget. He also practiced law in Washington, D.C., with Sidley Austin LLP for five years. He is a sixth-generation Idahoan.

If confirmed, he’d replace Judge N. Randy Smith of Pocatello, who took senior status on Aug. 11, his 69th birthday. Smith, a former Idaho district judge, was appointed to the court in 2007.

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