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US judge apologizes for ‘partisan’ comments on Trump pardons

June 30, 2021 GMT

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A federal judge in Iowa admitted wrongdoing and publicly apologized for comments ridiculing former President Donald Trump for issuing a series of pardons to well-connected Republican officials.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt made the remarks during a phone interview with The Associated Press in December, saying: “It’s not surprising a criminal like Trump pardons other criminals.” In a bit of humor, he added, “But apparently to get a pardon, one has to be either a Republican, a convicted child murderer or a turkey.”

Pratt’s remarks set off a firestorm of criticism among lawyers, who said that they were inappropriate from a federal judge. They also triggered a judicial misconduct complaint against Pratt by Lavenski Smith, chief judge of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, where Pratt has long worked at the Des Moines courthouse, this week posted online a letter dated April 16 from Pratt to Smith.

Pratt said he accepted Smith’s conclusion that his comments constitute “cognizable misconduct” because they veered into what could be construed as “inappropriate partisan statements.”

“I acknowledge the wrongfulness of the comments, and I regret the embarrassment they have caused to my court and the judiciary in general,” Pratt wrote. “I am truly sorry for the remarks and apologize for having made them. I also want to reaffirm my commitment to the impartial administration of justice in full compliance with the Code of Conduct for United States judges.”

That code calls for judges to act with impartiality, avoid political activity and not show partisan bias.

The court said it was posting the letter at Smith’s direction. Pratt has been on the bench since his appointment by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1997. He has had a reduced caseload since 2012, when he assumed senior status.

Gabe Roth, executive director of nonpartisan judicial ethics watchdog Fix the Court, brought Pratt’s remarks to the 8th Circuit’s attention in February, calling them unseemly. Roth said Wednesday that he was pleased to learn of Pratt’s apology.

“This was the outcome I had hoped for — remorse from Pratt and a promise not to make similarly partisan remarks so long as he serves as a federal judge,” he said.

Pratt made the remarks when reached for comment on pardons Trump granted in December to Jesse Benton and John Tate, aides for Republican Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Benton and Tate were convicted of concealing $73,000 in payments that went to Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson in exchange for Sorenson’s endorsement of Paul.

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The White House noted that the pardons for Tate and Benton were supported by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son. Sorenson, who testified against them, was not pardoned.

Pratt sentenced Sorenson to 15 months in prison in 2017, even though prosecutors asked for probation due to his cooperation. Pratt noted that Sorenson improperly took $133,000 in secret payments from presidential campaigns while serving as a senator. He warned that without consequences for abusing the public trust, “political corruption will slowly corrode the foundations of our democracy until it collapses under its own weight.”

In the December interview, Pratt referred to allegations that Trump had improperly enriched himself in office in violation of a constitutional clause that bans the acceptance of gifts and payments from foreign powers.

He spoke after Trump granted pardons to his former campaign aides convicted during the special counsel’s Russia inquiry, former GOP congressmen who committed crimes, and security contractors convicted of killing innocent civilians in Iraq. Trump also annually pardoned turkeys — last year two from Iowa — before Thanksgiving.