Obama nominates Cedar Rapids public defender to Appeals Court (updated)

President Barack Obama yesterday nominated Jane Kelly to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal public defender in the Northern District of Iowa was one of two women Senator Tom Harkin recommended for the judgeship.

After the jump I’ve posted a statement from Harkin welcoming Kelly’s nomination. It includes biographical information and notes, “If confirmed, Ms. Kelly would be only the second female judge in the history of the Eighth Circuit, which was established in 1891.” I would add that it’s unusual and encouraging to see a highly-qualified public defender nominated to become a U.S. Appeals Court judge.

I have not yet seen any statement from Senator Chuck Grassley on Kelly’s nomination. As the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley has a lot of influence over how and whether judicial nominations are considered. I’ve also posted below a joint press release from several Iowa progressive groups urging Grassley to work to confirm Kelly quickly.

Statement from Senator Tom Harkin, January 31:

Harkin Welcomes White House Nomination of Jane Kelly for Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) today issued the following statement upon learning that the White House had formally nominated Jane Kelly as U.S. Circuit Court Judge for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.   Ms. Kelly, who has served since 1994 as a federal defender in the Northern District of Iowa, was recommended by Harkin to the White House in late 2012 to replace Judge Michael Melloy.  Her nomination will now be sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will need to approve it before being considered by the full U.S. Senate.  

“Jane Kelly has has spent her career working on behalf of the most underprivileged in society and has fought tirelessly to ensure the rights of all Iowans are protected,” said Harkin.  “She has a reputation as an extremely talented lawyer with a great sense of compassion and fairness.  It was a privilege to recommend her to the White House and, now that she has been formally nominated, an honor on behalf of Iowans.  

“Federal judges play a crucial role in our judicial system, ensuring the rule of law, promoting justice, and protecting critical constitutional values,” he continued.  “I take my constitutional role of providing recommendations on this nomination very seriously and, in this process, have carefully reviewed the records qualifications of many outstanding judges and attorneys in Iowa.   Jane Kelly was among the top in her field.  I now look forward to working with my colleague Senator Grassley to move her nomination through the Senate.”  

Ms. Kelly is a 1987 graduate of Duke University and a 1991 graduate of Harvard Law School.  After law school, she was a law clerk to Judge Donald Porter of the Federal District Court of South Dakota and Judge David Hansen of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  After her clerkship, in 1994, Ms. Kelly became an assistant federal defender in the Northern District of Iowa, in Cedar Rapids.  She has been there since.  If confirmed, Ms. Kelly would be only the second female judge in the history of the Eighth Circuit, which was established in 1891.  

January 31 press release from coalition of progressive groups in Iowa:

(Des Moines, IA)- Today, President Barack Obama nominated Jane Kelly to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. If confirmed, Kelly would become the second woman to ever sit on the Eighth Circuit. As a federal public defender, Kelly would bring great professional diversity court, as well.

In order for Kelly’s nomination to move forward, the Senate Judiciary Committee must vote on whether to move the nomination to the Senate Floor, for consideration by the full Senate. Iowa Senators Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin play an instrumental role in ensuring Kelly is confirmed by the Senate. Senator Harkin has issued a statement supporting Kelly, and a coalition of Iowa non-profit organizations now encourage Senator Grassley to help quickly move Kelly through the nominations process:

Statement from One Iowa Executive Director Donna Red Wing:

“Courts matter to all Americans and access to a fair and impartial judiciary is the bedrock of a healthy democracy. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is very familiar with the impact courts can have on our families and our lives. Courts matter to us. We deserve a judiciary that is free from politics and posturing and one that serves its central purpose: justice. We urge Senator Grassley to confirm Jane Kelly to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Delaying confirmations is an impediment to justice, and one that LGBT families cannot afford. One Iowa will stand with all Iowans to ensure full access to a fair and impartial judiciary that works.”

Statement from Working Families Win Organizer Chris Schwartz:

“The courts have served as the last chance for justice on a variety of social and economic issues, but their importance is far too often they over looked by the public. We need to hold our political leaders accountable, and educate the public about what is at stake so that justice is not delayed. The courts matter to us and to working families.”

Statement from Iowa Citizen Action Network Executive Director Sue Dinsdale:

“Everyone deserves their fair day in court, but courts without judges deny Americans their access to justice.  Our country faces a judicial crisis with federal courts across the nation in desperate need of judges to fill empty courtrooms.  While senators play politics with judicial nominations, well-qualified nominees wait to be seated, cases go unheard, and a growing number of Americans find it increasingly difficult to assert their legal and constitutional rights. We call on Senator Grassley to temper the “confirmation wars’ that have troubled judicial appointments and seize this opportunity to swiftly confirm Jane Kelly to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Statement from Progress Iowa Executive Director Matt Sinovic:

“It’s time for Senator Grassley and the Senate Judiciary Committee to stop playing politics with our courts and move the nomination of Jane Kelly forward. Any further delay will result in justice denied, and Iowans deserve better from their elected leaders. Kelly will provide an important perspective on the bench as an accomplished attorney, a lifelong defender of the indigent, and as a woman. Her nomination must move forward without further political obstruction.”

Jane Kelly:  Nominee for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Jane Kelly has been an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Northern District of Iowa since 1994, serving as the Supervising Attorney in the Cedar Rapids office since 1999.

Kelly was born and raised in Greencastle, Indiana.  She received her B.A. summa cum laude in 1987 from Duke University and her J.D. cum laude in 1991 from Harvard Law School.  After graduating from law school, Kelly clerked for the Honorable Donald J. Porter of the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota.  Subsequently, she also clerked for the Honorable David R. Hansen on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.  Prior to becoming an Assistant Federal Public Defender, Kelly worked briefly as a visiting instructor at the University of Illinois College of Law.  Since joining the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Kelly has argued numerous federal appellate cases, tried 14 cases to verdict in federal court, and argued countless motions.  In 2004, she received the John Adams Award from the Iowa Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, which is given annually to an Iowa attorney who has dedicated his or her career to defending the indigent.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register reprinted a column Rekha Basu wrote about Kelly in 2004, shortly after she won the John Adams Award from the Iowa Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Drake University Law School. The column mentioned that Kelly graduated from Harvard Law School the same year as Barack Obama. Basu’s piece focused on Kelly’s commitment to her work even after being the victim of a serious assault in June 2004. (No one was ever charged in that crime.) Excerpts:

“It’s easy to lose compassion,” she said last week, “but the problem is bigger than who committed the crime.”

[…] At an award ceremony honoring her last week, Judge Michael Melloy of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said such clients are often tough to work with and unappreciative, and he joked, “Your mother says, ‘How could you represent these people?’ ”

The John Adams Award from the Iowa Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Drake University Law School recognizes someone who shows a commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. Kelly was this year’s unanimous choice. Calling her the “consummate professional,” Melloy said. “She puts her heart and soul into every case.”

The judge should know. She’s appeared before him.

Accepting the award, Kelly quipped that she can’t remember a time when she didn’t know how to make meth.

And she’s spent so much time in jail, she said, she should have enough time served for a couple of simple misdemeanors. […]

As for the criminals, without condoning their actions, she acknowledges, “It’s poverty, mental illness, people being left behind in school, unable to get jobs, left out of a culture that seems to give [others] everything. I don’t understand that level of rage, but it’s obviously out there.”

That’s easy to say until you’ve been a victim.

The attack on Kelly had a deep impact. She’s had two surgeries and may need more. She has yet to fully regain her strength. “They’re very personal issues,” she said. “When you’re talking about crime, you’re talking about some of the most personal things that can happen to you.”


Morals and values are overused words these days that are easier mouthed than practiced. For some, they mean telling others how to live. But some do live them, ignoring the lure of money and fame to put themselves on the line to advocate for others.

To be that way, you have to fundamentally believe in the good in everyone – which isn’t easy when you’ve been wronged. But when Jane Kelly says, “I have never met a client that I didn’t find something redeeming about,” it’s worth paying attention.

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.