Jane Kelly got an extra friendly reception from the Senate Judiciary Committee at her confirmation hearing Wednesday for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, soaking up a stream of compliments and fielding questions about why diversity in the courts is important.
Kelly, an Iowan who would be only the second woman judge in the circuit's history, has also been a federal public defender in the Northern District of Iowa, a contrast to many prosecutors on that circuit's bench. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced her as a lawyer who stood out as a person of intellect who has wide bipartisan support from the Iowa legal community.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), usually delivers the toughest questions for nominees as the committee's ranking member and typically lone Republican at the hearings. But Wednesday, he noted that his staff had already told Kelly what the questions would be, "so there should be no surprises here."
Kelly clerked in the Eighth Circuit for senior Judge David Hansen, who was a Republican county chairman who campaigned for Grassley during the senator's first congressional campaign, when Grassley was in the hospital.
Grassley asked about her background and the role compassion would play in making decisions. His last question was about whether Kelly thought judges should give up on the Constitution. As might be predicted, Kelly said judges should not give up on the Constitution.
"I was holding my breath to see how you's answer that," Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) said. "You did well.…The fact that you're so heartily supported by both Senators speaks highly of you."
Kelly said that her experience as a public defender would allow for better decisions. "While compassion and empathy do not decide the case, I do think it allows judges to be more open-minded and to maybe hear or listen for things they otherwise wouldn't have heard or listened for," Kelly said.
She was asked about the biggest challenges facing the federal courts. "I think one of the more significant challenges to the court right now is the sheer number of cases moving through the courts right now," Kelly said. "There are an increasing number of criminal cases being brought. Unfortunately, I think that's squeezing out some of the civil cases from getting docket spaces."
Kelly, who was nominated January 31, got her confirmation hearing relatively quickly, compared with other recent federal appellate court nominees.
And just 30 minutes after it started, with a hearing frequently filled with laughs from committee members, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) brought the hearing to a close by summarizing, "We're very impressed by your credentials."
"I'm sort of enjoying it," Kelly said of the hearing.
Klobuchar responded: "You may be the first person to say that."