U.S. Chief Magistrate CJ Williams, nominated to be the next district judge in the Northern District of Iowa, told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that it’s not his job to make law, he will follow precedent -“whether it’s good, bad or ugly decision.”
“If I got it wrong, a higher court would reverse me,” Williams said in response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, committee member.
Williams was introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the committee, and Sen. Joni Ernst, who recommended him for the judgeship last year. President Donald Trump then nominated him for the position. This is the first hearing before the committee. A vote out of committee will be set next and then the U.S. Senate will vote on confirmation.
Grassley, during his introduction, said Williams was a “lawyer’s lawyer. He is not political. He is not driven by ideology.”
Ernst noted that Williams always strives to give back by working in the University of Iowa College of Law’s legal clinic, bringing drug awareness to youth in Cedar Rapids’ schools, and he also wrote a federal criminal textbook.
“He is also known for his “kindness, dedication and humility,” Ernst added.
Other members of the committee then had the opportunity to ask Williams a few questions regarding his judicial philosophy and his role in the prosecution of Sholom Rubashkin, a former vice-president of the now defunct Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville.
Rubashkin, 57, was convicted in 2009 on 86 federal counts of bank, mail and wire fraud, money laundering and failure to pay livestock providers in a timely manner. The charges stemmed from a 2008 immigration raid at the plant.
Nearly 400 undocumented workers were charged in the raid.
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Rubashkin, sentenced in 2010 to 27 years in federal prison, received a commutation of that sentence from President Trump in December. He had served eight years.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, asked Williams what his role as one of the lead prosecutors entailed in the “assembly line” criminal process as the majority of the nearly 400 defendants all pleaded guilty to identity theft. He noted there were only ten or so defense attorneys who followed a “script” during the pleadings to expedite the cases.
Williams, an assistant U.S. attorney at that time, said at the beginning of the case he had taken over the role as Senior Litigation Counsel in the office, so he mainly reviewed search warrants but had no role in the workers convictions — the majority who were deported. He became involved in the prosecution when it turned into a “very complex financial fraud” case that led to Rubashkin’s conviction.
Durbin asked what he thought of the commutation but Williams only said that the president has “complete discretion” to do so and he had no issues with it. Williams did note that President Donald Trump didn’t pardon Rubashkin.
Following the questioning, Grassley told Williams, as well as two others nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Illinois, that they may receive follow up questions in writing from the committee and once those were returned, another hearing before the committee would be set to vote on the nominations.
Williams will replace U.S. District Judge Linda Reade who took senior status in October but has maintained a full caseload because she is the only district judge in Cedar Rapids. U.S. District Chief Judge Leonard Strand handles a full caseload in Sioux City but also travels to Cedar Rapids to help on this side of the district.
Williams, a native of Mount Pleasant, received his Juris Doctor from the University of Iowa College of Law and his Masters of Law from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
Williams served nearly two decades as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Iowa. As the chief magistrate, he presides over all pretrial matters in criminal and civil cases, along with presiding over the trials by agreement of the parties.
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Earlier in his career, he served as a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and also served as a special assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. He has received a number of awards from the FBI and the DEA for his work as a federal prosecutor.
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