Kelly is rare federal judge with public defender background
Mar. 03, 2016
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — As a federal appeals court judge, Jane L. Kelly has an unusual background: She's a criminal defense lawyer and a Harvard Law School classmate of President Barack Obama.
A Fulbright scholar, Kelly became only the second woman named to the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2013, after nearly two decades as a federal public defender in Iowa.
Now, her name is on many short lists as a possibility to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month.
Her appointment to the appeals court was swiftly confirmed on a Senate vote of 96-0, supported by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who now is vowing to block any attempt by Obama to appoint a Scalia replacement.
Kelly's experience as a public defender lends a different flavor to the appeals court and "says something about her worldview," said Debra Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Infinity Project, which seeks to ensure women are considered for judicial posts in the 8th Circuit.
"She is bringing a certain set of experiences that hasn't been represented before. ... It's been a difficult thing for public defenders in general to crack into these positions," Fitzpatrick said. "But they have a really important perspective."
Kelly, 51, was born in Indiana, and graduated from Duke University in 1987 and Harvard Law in 1991. In addition to clerking for retired federal Judge David Hansen, she also was a clerk for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota. She became a federal public defender in Iowa in 1994.
Among her highest-profile cases were defending a college student accused of placing pipe bombs in mailboxes in five states in 2002, and representing a man who embezzled $200 million from clients over 20 years.
During her confirmation hearing for the appeals court, Kelly said her background could be an asset.
"As a criminal defense attorney, I am often representing someone who, shall I say, is not the most popular person in the room," she said. "So I, as much as anyone, know how important it is to be fair and impartial and make decisions based on things other than bias, favor, or prejudice."
In 2004, Kelly was attacked by a man on a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, trail and hospitalized. No charges were filed. Later that year, she was given an award for dedication to defending the indigent.
"It's easy to lose compassion," she told The Des Moines Register several months after the attack. "But the problem is bigger than who committed the crime."