Monday, February 15, 2016

Jane Kelly For SCOTUS?

I've been hearing murmurings that Eighth Circuit Judge Jane Kelly might be the President's SCOTUS nominee. And there are a lot of dimensions along which that makes a lot of sense.

I've never actually met Judge Kelly, but I'm quite familiar with her. She arrived on the Eighth Circuit in 2013 midway through my clerkship with Judge Murphy, finally ending the latter's streak as the only woman ever to serve on that court nearly 20 years after she was first appointed. Kelly's confirmation was unusually easy in this day and age -- a 96-0 vote taken three months after her nomination -- apparently because she is very well liked by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is no small ally for a prospective Obama nominee to have. And it would be difficult for Republicans to justify blocking a nominee they quickly and unanimously confirmed to the Eighth Circuit barely three years ago.

Beyond the purely tactical concerns, Judge Kelly is an interesting choice for another reason: Prior to her elevation to the bench, she was a career public defender, working in the Northern District of Iowa from 1994 to 2013. That background is extraordinarily uncommon on the federal bench, and I believe entirely unheard of on the Supreme Court. Her nomination would certainly have particular resonance in the current political moment where overstretches of the police state have been a central issue occupying progressive activist thought.

Now normally, what that background giveth, it also taketh away -- it is very easy to caricature a federal public defender as "soft on crime" (pluck out the most gruesome murderer she ever defended and ask why she wanted to keep him on the streets). But -- and not to get too macabre -- Judge Kelly has a personal story here too that helps insulate her from that particular angle of attack: she was beaten unconscious and left for dead in an unsolved 2004 assault. She is far more intimately familiar with the ravages of violent crime than nearly any other high-level government official in the United States.

Of course, if Judge Kelly were nominated and confirmed, that would restore Judge Murphy as the sole woman on the Eighth Circuit (and -- perhaps even more amazingly -- would also leave her the only active Democratic-appointee on it). But I get the sense she wouldn't mind. Judge Kelly would certainly put a lot of pressure on Senator Grassley and the wing of the GOP Senate that still isn't 100% comfortable with government-via-tantrum. And beyond that, I don't think she'd make a half-bad Justice either.

UPDATE: Speaking of Grassley, he's stepped back from the edge a bit, saying he won't decide whether to hold hearings on President Obama's nominee until the nomination is announced. Admittedly, other quotes from the same interview are less promising. But if this is a slight step towards rapprochement, a Kelly nomination could be just the way for Obama to respond in kind.

(I'm going to just say I'm predicting a Kelly nomination now. It's a bit of a dark horse pick, but I'm undefeated so far in Obama SCOTUS predictions so why not roll the dice a bit?).

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