The Senate confirmed Jane Kelly to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Wednesday, faster than any other circuit court nominee during the Obama administration. How in less than three months did she navigate a process that has come to represent partisan bickering and Senate gridlock?
Part of the unusual answer starts at an Iowa hospital way back in the mid-1970s, when Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was ill during his first campaign for U.S. Congress.
Today, Grassley is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, giving him influence on the confirmation process and making him the chief spokesman for Republican concerns about President Barack Obama's judicial nominees. Back then, however, Grassley was an Iowa House of Representatives member trying to make it to Washington.
With Grassley in a University of Iowa Hospital bed, a Republican county chairman and small-town lawyer named David Hansen went out and campaigned for him, the senator explained at Kelly’s confirmation hearing in February. "And you know, you don't find county chairman doing that that often in our state," Grassley said. "I won that primary and won that election obviously, and he gets all the credit for it."
Once in office, Grassley remembered the effort. Grassley says he twice suggested Hansen for federal bench positions: first to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa during the Reagan administration and then to the Eighth Circuit during the George H.W. Bush administration. "He's been a friend of mine as well," Grassley said of Hansen, now an Eighth Circuit senior judge, on the Senate floor Wednesday.
The connection to Kelly's nomination: She clerked in the Eighth Circuit for Hansen during 1992 and 1993. Hansen sent Grassley a hand-written note supporting Kelly, noting that she has an "exceptionally keen intellect" and "will be a welcome addition to the court if confirmed."
Another key: Grassley and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have had a congenial working relationship for years when it comes to judicial nominees from their state. Senators also give great deference to the opinions of senators from a judicial nominee’s home state.
"Ms. Kelly's nomination moved so quickly as a result of the support of my senior colleague from Iowa, Senator Grassley," Harkin said in a written statement about the vote.
All of that is not to ignore Kelly’s qualifications. 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.
Harkin said on the Senate floor Wednesday that she is a lawyer who stood out as a person of intellect who has wide bipartisan support from the Iowa legal community. And the American Bar Association gave Kelly a unanimous qualified rating (although other nominees who have waited longer got unanimous well-qualified ratings).
Kelly was confirmed by the full Senate in a 96-0 vote just 83 days after her nomination. The average for uncontroversial Obama circuit nominees to go through that same process is 272 days, according to a Congressional Research Service report from September.
The closest in speed was Evan Wallach, who was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in November 2011, just 103 days after his nomination. On the other end of the spectrum is Caitlin Halligan, a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit who withdrew after a nomination process that lasted more than two years because of constant opposition from Republican senators.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the judiciary committee, noted the speed in a written statement issued after Kelly's vote, saying Kelly has "proven the exception to the practice of Republicans of holding up confirmations of circuit nominees for no good reason for months."
Alliance For Justice, a progressive group that has pushed for swifter judicial confirmations, applauded the vote in a written statement. "This is how the process should work – and we hope it is a sign of things to come," Michelle Schwartz, director of AFJ's justice programs, said.