Judge Ryan Nelson’s Journey from Pre-Med to the Ninth Circuit

By Amy Ortiz

“I wasn’t always planning to pursue law,” said Judge Ryan Nelson, “I had actually started out as Pre-Med at BYU.” It wasn’t until after serving an LDS mission in Antwerp, Belgium, that Nelson realized that his true passion and skill set lay within the law.

“I could have been a good doctor,” he said, “but I probably wouldn’t have become an excellent doctor. I realized that I didn’t quite like science as much as I liked English.” Regarding his ultimate career choice, Nelson reflected, “Life is long and a career is long, and you have to spend your life doing something that makes you happy.”

Nelson graduated from BYU with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1996, and then proceeded to earn his Juris Doctor in 1999 from the J. Reuben Clark Law School. In school, Nelson was a diligent student. His knowledge in writing helped him succeed in his classes, and his study groups helped build lasting relationships. Nelson graduated magna cum laude and was inducted into the Order of the Coif. This accomplishment encouraged Nelson and he sought mentors to help him make the most of his career.

One of his first mentors was his father, now a senior named partner at Nelson Hall Parry Tucker, a law firm in Idaho Falls, Idaho. His dad’s involvement and guidance in the law gave Nelson a solid foundation early in his career. However, as he developed, Nelson sought mentorship from others as well. Other mentors included Tom Griffith, now a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, for whom he externed at the U.S. Senate Legal Counsel during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, while Nelson was still a law student at BYU. Nelson said, “I learned that it was fulfilling to work for the government and provide that type of service with your legal abilities. The Clinton impeachment trial was a big, important area for me to cut my teeth and to learn from someone like Tom.”

After law school, Nelson had the opportunity to clerk for Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. After that clerkship, he clerked for Judge Richard Mosk of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. This clerkship took him and his young family to the Netherlands, where he leveraged the Dutch he had learned while serving an LDS mission years prior. Nelson then worked at Sidley Austin LLP. After five years at Sidley, he left to work in government service at the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. He also worked for the White House and the U.S. Senate. During his government service, he was recruited as General Counsel at Melaleuca Inc., and he returned to his hometown of Idaho Falls.

After serving as General Counsel at Melaleuca for nine years, President Trump nominated Nelson as solicitor for the Department of the Interior. That nomination was pending when he was nominated for an opening as a Circuit Judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We had to be flexible and not everybody can have that kind of patience. I was grateful to have a wife and employer who were supportive, and friends and family who helped me process what was happening because there were a lot of curve balls.

“[Even] with all the uncertainty, I was in a unique place where I was fading out of my position at Melaleuca and transitioning to a new position which gave me a little more time to spend with my family and that was a very positive thing.” On October 18, 2018, five months after his judicial nomination, Nelson was confirmed as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Through his career and personal life, Nelson has learned how to share his perspective with others, and has striven to understand and consider differing world views. This, Nelson said, “is a good skill to learn not only in this career, but in life.”

As the father of seven children, Judge Nelson hopes their lives and careers grow to be as fulfilling and joyful as his has been. His eldest son, age 21, is in college and interned at the White House and the U.S. Senate. Another daughter was studying at BYU prior to serving a mission. However, Nelson’s other kids are still in high school or are even younger than that.

“As with all things, the next generation has a different path to cut and so you hope that the law will be as enjoyable to them if they decide to pursue it, and just hope that they’re happy in whatever they choose to do.”


1) Q. How do you view the future of the next generations? Do you have any advice on ways we can help preserve the values of our constitution?

A. Society needs to have a stronger emphasis on civics at all levels. We have gotten away from that. Principles of civics have come out of the school curriculum. There’s been a greater emphasis on teaching the basics of math, reading, and writing, but our country became great because we focused on our civic responsibility not only at home but also in school. Our early great leaders all learned that way. George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, regardless of where they were at in their personal life, there was a community civic understanding that we seem to be losing today. The young generation has to figure out a way to make up for that deficiency and hopefully that will come through self study and education. Parents and families have the responsibility to teach civics and the importance of our court system at home. Kids graduate from high school now without a complete understanding of how our court system works and why it is such an important branch of government, and that’s a huge loss. The world’s more complicated than it used to be, so it is not just understanding what the President does but what dozens of federal agencies do that are part of the Executive Branch. There needs to be a more sophisticated understanding so people can get involved on the issues of today.

2) Q. As an alum of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, what advice do you have for current students and recent graduates who are seeking to make a difference in their community?

A. Law students should look for mentors. Mentors are so important throughout life and they come in a lot of different varieties. When I was in law school, I had mentors both within the law school and outside the law school. I had a couple of excellent Bishops at BYU, like Kevin Sutterfield and Kenneth Cahoon. They were great leaders for me individually and spiritually. Within the law school, I also had great professors like Tom Lee, Brett Scharffs, James Rasband, Kevin Worthen, Larry Echohawk, Dee Benson, and Richard Wilkins, who had a huge impact on my life. They opened up a lot of career doors for me. These mentors were very important to me—some throughout my life. Once you get out of law school, look for ways to mentor others and to pay back for the gifts that you’ve been given. I have tried to step up and mentor those coming behind me. Look for ways to serve. Be active in the community. Do things above and beyond just the practice of law.