By Jennifer Smith / Guest Editorial

If appointed, Jane Kelly would be the first woman to join the Eighth Circuit since 1994, the first Iowa woman to serve on the Eighth Circuit and only the second woman ever to serve.

On Jan. 31, President Barack Obama nominated the seasoned federal public defender from Iowa to replace retiring Judge Michael J. Melloy on the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ms. Kelly was recommended to the president by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Because this seat has traditionally been held by an Iowa judge or lawyer, support of both Mr. Harkin and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been instrumental in advancing the nomination. The nomination represents an opportunity for Eighth Circuit senators to come together to support a historic appointment.

Only one woman has ever served on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals — the Honorable Diana Murphy, who was appointed in 1994. Since that time, the nine judges appointed to the Eighth Circuit have all been men. Ms. Murphy currently serves with 17 men, including 10 active and seven senior judges. Sixty-one judges have served on the Eighth Circuit, making women only 1.6 percent of the total appointments; the worst record on gender diversity in the federal circuit courts in the country, according to the Infinity Project, a group whose mission is to increase the gender diversity of the bench in the Eighth Circuit.

The lack of women on the Eighth Circuit bench is particularly troubling because it suggests qualified candidates have been overlooked. Women make up more than 25 percent of the judges on the nation’s state and federal benches. They play an important role in helping the judiciary reflect the population it serves, enhance public trust in the judiciary and ensure that judicial decisions reflect diverse viewpoints. The current nomination provides a rare opportunity to increase diversity on the Eighth Circuit. Every nomination is critical, since each is a lifetime appointment.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has enormous influence because it is the federal court of last resort for most citizens in Iowa. Though its decisions can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, that court accepts a very small percentage of cases appealed to it. The decisions made by this court have broad impact on wide-ranging issues, such as federal regulations, healthcare, immigration, drug crimes and privacy rights. The federal judiciary plays an increasingly important role in the lives of Iowans.

“The Infinity Project views this as an exciting and encouraging step toward greater diversity on the Eighth Circuit bench and is grateful to President Obama, Sen. Harkin and Sen. Grassley for advancing a well-qualified woman,” stated Jeanette Bazis, president of the Infinity Project.

The Infinity Project seeks to increase gender diversity and ensure the quality of justice in the Eighth Circuit. A non-partisan organization, the Infinity Project raises public awareness and informs key political decision-makers about the benefits of a diverse judiciary as well as the numerous qualified women interested in serving in the judiciary. The project also works to expand the pool of qualified nominees to increase gender diversity on the bench in Eighth Circuit states.

For more information about gender diversity on the federal bench, contact Debra Fitzpatrick at (612) 625-7176 or dfitzpatrick@umn.edu. For more information on the Infinity Project, visit www.theinfinityproject.org/.

 

Jennifer Smith is past president of the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys (I.O.W.A.) and serves as an I.O.W.A. district representative. She is in-house legal counsel for ACT, Inc., and most recently worked as the assistant vice president, legal, for the University of Iowa Foundation. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in psychology and sociology and law degree with high distinction from the University of Iowa. She was part of the 2010 Forty Under 40 by the Corridor Business Journal.