FBI officials in Iowa vetting Judge Jane Kelly

They speak with associates as the Cedar Rapidian is mentioned for Supreme Court

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FBI officials this week have spoken with associates of federal appeals court Judge Jane Kelly in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, The Gazette has learned, as the White House vets her as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Robins, confirmed Thursday that she was among those interviewed.

“Jane Kelly would be a qualified and strong candidate for the nation’s highest bench,” Mathis said in a statement. “I was honored to be interviewed and write a letter of support for her nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 2013 and equally honored to be one of many from Iowa who will support her for consideration to the Supreme Court.”

The interest in Kelly, 51, of Cedar Rapids comes amid a standoff between President Barack Obama and top Republican senators — including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley — over filling the court vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13. The next justice has the potential to tip the balance of the court for years to come as hot-button issues including abortion and climate change swirl.

Word that the White House planned to review Kelly was reported Wednesday by the New York Times and Bloomberg News, among others, that cited anonymous sources. It was unclear if other possible nominees also were being vetted.

The National Law Journal reported that a White House official held a conference call Thursday with Asian-American and Pacific Islander leaders to discuss the Supreme Court. The names of several Asian-American judges also have been circulating in news reports as possibilities — including Sri Srinivasan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Jacqueline Nguyen of the 9th Circuit and Judge Denny Chin of the 2nd Circuit.

But if Obama were to pick Kelly, her nomination could put a one-time cheerleader of hers in a bind — Grassley.

He spoke approvingly of the former federal public defender when she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2013 to serve on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Grassley said then that Kelly “is a forthright woman of high integrity and honest character” with an “exceptionally keen intellect.”

Before her name was leaked as a possibility, Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they would not hold any confirmation hearings for any Supreme Court nominee picked by Obama. After Kelly’s name surfaced as a possibility, Grassley held firm.

“The November election is a unique opportunity for the grass-roots to have a real voice in who they want to nominate a lifetime appointment to the highest court. ... If a Democrat wins the White House, I’m sure Jane Kelly would be on any Democrat’s short list of candidates,” he told The Gazette.

But opponents have launched what is in essence a campaign to shame Grassley into at least calling a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid blasted the “ineptness” of Grassley’s leadership and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on Grassley’s committee, hammered the Iowa senator over his handling of even routine business of the panel.

Thursday, members of the Why Courts Matter Iowa coalition tried to deliver more than 6,000 petition signatures and copies of the Constitution to Grassley’s office in Cedar Rapids. The 10 representatives, a few holding “Do Your Job” signs, planned to ask that he hold hearings for a nominee. But they made it only to the lobby of the U.S. District Courthouse, where his local office is.

Zach Beck, a case worker in Grassley’s office, met the group and listened to comments for about 10 minutes.

“I feel like Sen. Grassley is blocking the nominees and this is not the way government should work,” Kristin Wildensee, of Iowa City, said. “He’s not representing me well. I feel like this is disrespectful to Obama. He has said let the people choose. We did. We elected the president … twice.”

Beck assured the group Grassley is listening to the comments he has received and will look at the petitions.

Grassley is one of the most popular politicians in Iowa. But Democratic rivals are pouncing on him as he faces re-election this year to a seventh term.

The Des Moines Register and the New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reported Thursday that former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge is expected to announce as soon as Friday that she’s joining what is already a three-way Democratic race for Grassley’s seat.

Judge was twice elected state agriculture secretary and served one term with Gov. Chet Culver.

In an earlier interview with the Register, she decried Grassley’s stance.

“I think Chuck Grassley owes us better,” she told the newspaper. “He’s been with us a long time. Maybe he’s been with us too long.”

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