Sen. Tom Harkin urges "swift approval" of Assistant Federal Public Defender Jane Kelly, who was nominated last month as the next 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, during Wednesday's U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Harkin, D-Iowa, said he recommended Kelly, the supervising attorney in the Cedar Rapids office, for the nomination because she possessed all the qualifications needed for a federal judge, including intellect and character, and she has a reputation of being an "extremely talented lawyer."
Harkin said Kelly has full partisan support from those like retired Judge Michael Melloy, who Kelly would replace on the bench if confirmed. He pointed out that Kelly, if confirmed, will be only the second woman to serve on the 8th Circuit and the only public defender to serve on the bench since 1891.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the committee, also supported Kelly, citing her commitment to upholding the Constitution and the unanimous rating from the American Bar Association of being a "qualified" judicial nominee.
Committee members only had a few questions for Kelly including the importance of diversity on the bench and her civil experience.
Kelly said diversity on the bench is important but it's also important to have qualified judges, whether they be men or women but she thought her experience of being a public defender would bring a good perspective to the bench.
"It's helpful to have a variety of views and backgrounds," she said.
Grassley asked if she could give her assurance of being fair and impartial and he wanted to know if her compassion and empathy, as she has been known for, would affect her rulings.
Kelly said it was important for judges to treat all parties fairly and she wouldn't favor one side over the other - based on compassion or empathy.
"Compassion wouldn't come into play," Kelly said. "Judges have to rule by law."
Kelly later added that compassion and empathy wouldn't decide a case but it would allow "judges to be more open to hearing other things they may not have before."
Grassley also asked about Kelly's appellant experience and civil experience.
Kelly said the bulk of her legal experience was criminal, but she had experience writing briefs and learning how the appellant process worked from her time clerking for 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hansen. She hasn't had much of a chance to do appellant work in the public defender's office because one attorney for the office handles those but she has occasionally discussed strategies for cases with him.
The record will be left open for a week to allow any questions before a committee vote on her nomination is taken.
University of Richmond School of Law Prof. Carl Tobias, who analyzes the judiciary, said after the hearing he didn't see any issues and it seemed to only be a matter of time before Kelly gets a floor vote from the full Senate. There are three other court of appeals nominees for other circuits ahead of Kelly for a vote.
"If she has Grassley's support, since he's the ranking member, I could see a committee vote next month and full Senate vote possibly in April," Tobias said.
Kelly has been an assistant public defender in the Northern District since 1994 and supervising attorney in the Cedar Rapids office since 1999. She received her bachelor's degree 1987 from Duke University and her law degree 1991 from Harvard Law School. After graduating from law school, Kelly clerked for the U.S. District Judge Donald J. Porter of South Dakota and also clerked for Hansen.