The cat appears to be out of the bag, whether or not President Obama was hoping to keep news of a potential Supreme Court nomination under wraps, after the New York Times reported Wednesday that the president is currently vetting federal appellate judge Jane Kelly for the available seat on the high court's bench. The news follows more than two weeks of U.S. senators, including Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Grassley of Kelly's own state of Iowa, vowing to block any nomination made by the current president. Whether or not the gang of GOP senators pledging to keep the late Antonin Scalia's seat open until next year will likely depend on what kind of judicial record Kelly has shaped over the years. Is Jane Kelly a liberal? You can bet the judge's political persuasion will matter for a SCOTUS nomination.
Kelly currently sits as a federal appellate judge for the Eighth Circuit, a position she has held since 2013, when her nomination from Obama was approved. Prior to joining the U.S. Court of Appeals, Kelly spent nearly two decades working for the Federal Public Defender's Office in Northern District of Iowa as an assistant federal public defender and, from 1999, a supervising attorney.
With the majority of her career up to this point having been as a public defender, there isn't a lengthy list of cases to review where Kelly was the one making the decisions. Kelly has, however, spoken out on the balanced outlook her role criminal defense provided her. During Kelly's 2013 confirmation hearing before the Senate, the judge stated:
As a criminal defense attorney, I am often representing someone who, shall I say, is not the most popular person in the room. 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.
One Minnesota case that went before the Eighth Circuit in 2014, while Kelly was on the bench, involved the controversial national issue of excessive force by law enforcement. The three-judge panel affirmed a lower court's decision to provide benefit of the doubt to police as opposed to citizens, and stated officers should be entitled to qualified immunity so long as the force used was reasonable. Because the opinion was written not by Kelly but by Chief Judge William Riley, details on Kelly's opinion are not known, but the ruling remains far on the spectrum from what would be expected of an especially liberal judge.
Kelly, then, whose "moderate leanings" have been brought up in the discussion of her qualifications for a SCOTUS nomination, appears a judge that both sides of the aisle can get behind. Grassley said in a statement, however, that although he supported her promotion to the Eighth Circuit, a blocked Obama nomination concerns "the principle, not the person."