Judge Robert Pratt legacy thread

Former U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose was sworn in yesterday as a federal judge. She is the youngest federal judge currently serving as well as the first woman on the bench in the Southern District of Iowa. The Senate confirmed Rose in September by 89 votes to 1.

In remarks prepared for Rose's investiture, Senator Tom Harkin predicted her "legal skills and knowledge" and "great sense of justice and fairness" would make her a "superb judge." He recommended Rose for U.S. attorney and later put her on the short list for the federal judgeship.

I was struck by Harkin's comments about the retired Judge Robert Pratt, whom Rose replaces. I enclose those comments below, along with links on some of Pratt's most influential decisions.

Excerpt from remarks Senator Harkin prepared for delivery on November 13:

"I first want to acknowledge the enormous contributions of the person whose seat you are taking, my friend, Judge Robert Pratt.  Judge Pratt has been an outstanding jurist who has brought a genuine passion and leadership for justice to Iowa and the country.  

"During Judge Pratt's tenure as U.S. District Court Judge, he has written many decisions, which have transformed the law for the better, for our entire nation.  There are many I could cite, but two stand out for the beauty and force of his writing, and for their impact on our nation's jurisprudence: the Prison Fellowship Ministries case and the decision regarding sentencing guidelines in the Gall case.  The Gall case gave to judges the power to weigh different factors in determining fair and just sentences, as opposed to some mechanical formula.  In other words, judges should judge! And I hope, Judge Rose, you will learn from Judge Pratt's experience, wisdom, and compassion."

The Prison Fellowship Ministries case started in 2003, when the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit "challenging the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a publicly supported, pervasively religious program in Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility."

Inmates who participated in IFI were housed in a separate prison unit, where they were immersed in "24-hour per day Christ-centered Bible-based programming" conducted by IFI employees, who were required by policy to be Christian. Trial was held between late October and early December 2005. On June 2, 2006, the district court held that the program violated the Establishment Clause, expelled the program from the prison, and directed IFI to repay the Department of Corrections the $1.5 million that it had been paid by the State. Defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in June 2006.

The U.S. Court of Appeals largely agreed with Judge Pratt's ruling in a December 2007 decision.

The court held that Iowa's involvement with IFI violated the Establishment Clause by supporting the indoctrination of inmates and IFI's discrimination against non-Christian inmates. The court also held that, while IFI had to return funds it received from Iowa after the district court issued its decision, it could not be compelled to return funds it had received earlier. In January 2008, the Eighth Circuit denied Defendants' petition for rehearing en banc, which asked the entire Eighth Circuit to review the case. Defendants declined to seek review of the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. In March 2008, Iowa terminated the IFI program.

Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute summarized the key facts of Gall v United States here. The case involved defendant Brian Michael Gall, who sold ecstasy for about eight months in 2000 (when he was a college sophomore) but left the drug-dealing ring years before he was investigated. The key question was,

Can a district court impose a sentence outside of the range recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines without providing an extraordinary reason to justify the deviation?

Pratt had long opposed strict sentencing guidelines for those who committed drug-related offenses, writing in 1999,

I have only been a federal judge for a short time. In that time, however, I have learned that sentencing offenders under the guidelines is an emotionally draining experience that requires consideration of the crime and past conduct of the defendant. Consideration must also be given to the effect of guideline sentencing on our country. What have we done by creating a system that many federal judges have rejected as unfair, inefficient and, as a practical matter, ineffective in eliminating drug use and drug-related crime?

As taxpayers, we might be willing to foot the enormous bill for the "war on drugs" if we had seen results, but as the explosion of meth crimes in Iowa illustrates, the guidelines have not helped to cut drug use or crime. [...]

How did it happen that we built a system that incarcerates our fellow citizens for inordinately long periods of time, wastes huge amounts of taxpayer dollars, ruins lives, and does not accomplish the stated purpose, i.e. to end the illegal consumption of drugs?

When sentencing Gall, Judge Pratt

gave particular weight to Gall's voluntary withdrawal from the drug conspiracy, his "exemplary" behavior while on bond, the public support of his family and friends, the lack of any other criminal history, and his immaturity at the time of the drug conspiracy, and sentenced Gall to three years probation and required drug and alcohol testing and counseling - a sentence far below the sentence range [of 30 to 37 months in prison] recommended by the Guidelines.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Pratt's ruling, on the grounds that "extraordinary justifications" would be needed to support such a large departure from federal sentencing guidelines. However, a 7-2 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gall's sentence was reasonable and that Judge Pratt had appropriately explained his reasons for sentencing the defendant to probation.

A few other influential rulings by Pratt deserve mention. After Iowa legislators passed and Governor Chet Culver signed into law new campaign finance disclosure rules in 2010, Iowa Right to Life filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Iowa law places unconstitutional restrictions on corporate political speech. Pratt denied Iowa Right to Life's request to prevent the rules from going into effect for the 2010 campaign. In the summer of 2011, the judge upheld the legislation.

He agreed with lawyers representing the state that such disclosures enhance the transparency of elections while only imposing a reasonable burden on corporations and unions. He said the disclosure requirements were similar to those upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in last year's case, and Iowa Right to Life failed to show that getting approval from its board would in any way change its operations.

Pratt also upheld an Iowa law that bars corporations from giving money directly to campaigns, saying the state's interest in preventing corruption outweighs free speech concerns.

Shortly after the 2010 general election, Indiana attorney and Republican National Committee member Jim Bopp filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four Iowans, challenging Iowa's system for selecting state judges. It didn't take Pratt long to dismiss that lawsuit, calling the plaintiffs' arguments "fatally flawed." You can read that 35-page ruling here (pdf); Bleeding Heartland summarized key points here. In April 2012, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of that lawsuit.

To sum up, Rose has big shoes to fill.

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