2 federal judges in Iowa plan to retire next year

IOWA CITY – Two federal judges from Iowa have announced plans to retire next year, and outgoing Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin is calling for the White House to appoint their replacements “as quickly as possible,” his office said Monday. The planned retirements of U.S. District Judges Mark W. Bennett and James Gritzner give Harkin the chance to influence the selection of their replacements before he leaves office in January. The openings also give President Barack Obama a short window of time to get nominees confirmed while the Senate, where Republicans are trying to win back the majority in November, remains under Democratic control. Harkin said that he is recommending Obama appoint David O’Brien, a Cedar Rapids attorney and longtime Democratic Party activist, to replace Bennett. He said that he is asking Obama to replace Gritzner with either U.S. Attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt or veteran Polk County Judge Karen Romano. It’s not clear when the White House will decide on the appointments. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is ranking member on the judiciary committee, could also have influence during the confirmation process. “This is the first we’ve heard of Senator Harkin’s recommendations. Senator Grassley was not consulted,” Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said. It is unusual for Iowa, a state that only has five active district judges, to have two pending vacancies for the lifetime judicial positions at the same time. Bennett informed Obama in January that he intends to retire July 4, 2015. A former civil rights attorney appointed by President Clinton in 1994, Bennett is known nationally as a critic of harsh sentencing policies for nonviolent drug offenders, his prolific writing on legal matters and his use of technology in the courtroom. He’s overseen hundreds of jury trials in his courtroom in Sioux City.

Gritzner, who is based in Des Moines, informed Obama in February that he plans to retire next March but go on senior status in which he will still hear some cases. Gritzner is chief judge for Iowa’s southern district. He was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002.

It is customary for the senior senator of the president’s party to recommend candidates for judicial openings in their states. But Harkin’s recommendations may give extra urgency to the process, given that he is leaving office in January after 30 years in the Senate.

Harkin said in a statement that he concluded the three were the most qualified based on their “character, experiences and expertise” following a careful vetting process. He said he reviewed the qualifications of many judges and lawyers, consulted with members of the Iowa bar and interviewed several candidates.

O’Brien, who served in the Department of Labor during the Clinton administration, finished last in a five-way Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat earlier this month. Klinefeldt is an Obama appointee who has been the top federal prosecutor in Iowa’s southern district since 2009, while Romano is a former prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 1996.

Guy Cook, a Des Moines lawyer who is president of the Iowa Bar Association, said that all three of the Harkin-backed candidates would make good replacements for two judges that he said had done “remarkable jobs.”

“I think the senator has chosen people that are well-regarded,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Fair Courts Coalition, which includes several left-leaning groups, said the replacements should be confirmed by the end of the year and not “held up for political reasons.”

“These nominations may be Sen. Harkin’s last, and I’d like to see them go through,” said the spokeswoman, Donna Red Wing, the executive director of One Iowa, a gay rights group. “I think all three are certainly capable, certainly viable.”