IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Jane Kelly will become a federal appeals court judge Friday with an unusual background that supporters say makes her a perfect fit for the job and a potential U.S. Supreme Court candidate someday.
The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.
Kelly, who's worked at the federal public defender's office in Cedar Rapids since 1994, graduated from Harvard Law School in the same 1991 class as President Barack Obama. But her appointment was far from patronage. She had so much support that her confirmation received a 96-0 vote in the Senate less than three months after she was appointed, speedier than any other circuit judge nominated by Obama. She also is the survivor of a 2004 beating on a popular jogging trail that left her hospitalized for weeks and shook Cedar Rapids.
Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.
"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."
If a Supreme Court justice retires during Obama's second term, Kelly could get mentioned as a potential nominee. Her supporters say they expect her to shine on the circuit, which has 11 active judges and hears 3,500 appeals a year. The lifetime appointment pays $184,500 annually.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, recommended Kelly to Obama to replace retiring Judge Michael Melloy after she rose above an "outstanding" pool. He said she would be the first career public defender on the circuit, bringing "a critically important perspective."
Iowa's other senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, ranking member on the judiciary committee, helped convince colleagues to move Kelly's confirmation quickly. Grassley said he supported Kelly because she received a glowing endorsement from respected retired judge David Hansen of Iowa, appointed to the circuit by President George H.W. Bush.
Kelly, Hansen's clerk from 1992 to 1993, was a persuasive writer and debater who often argued opposing viewpoints to help him flesh out cases, Hansen said.
"She's a delight to be around, and I predict a very bright future for her in the federal judiciary," Hansen said. "She isn't going to have any trouble intellectually with the work because she has a brilliant legal mind."
Kelly, who did not respond to an interview request, received friendly questions and praise at her confirmation hearing. She said her background gives her a "broader view" of the challenges facing defendants but that she'd need to get up to speed on civil matters. She introduced her partner, Tom Lidd, who has credited Kelly with helping inspire and edit his book about Iowa football legend Nile Kinnick.
A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.
Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.
Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.
She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.
One of her clients was Luke Helder, a college student accused of terrorizing the nation in 2002 by placing pipe bombs in mailboxes in five states. Kelly helped get Helder declared unfit for trial because of mental illness, and he's been committed for treatment but never prosecuted.
On the day Obama announced her appointment, Kelly was seeking leniency for Peregrine Financial Group founder Russell Wasendorf, who had pleaded guilty to embezzling $200 million from the brokerage's clients over 20 years. The prosecution was a slam-dunk: Wasendorf had confessed in detail after a botched suicide attempt.
Yet Kelly convinced one judge to order Wasendorf's release before sentencing — a decision that stunned Wasendorf and was later overturned. And Kelly shocked observers when she called former U.S. congressman David Nagle to praise Wasendorf's positive contributions to society.
Wasendorf received the maximum 50-year prison term but left satisfied with his representation, said his pastor, Linda Livingston.
"I am just delighted that a woman, not only of her education and experience but of her compassion," Livingston said, "is going to be in that position."