Judge Don Carlos Nickerson (1951 – 2017)
Judge Don Carlos Nickerson was the first African American to serve as U.S. Attorney in Iowa and was also appointed as a District Court Judge in Polk County, serving from 2003-2011.
Nickerson was born in Ohio on August 24, 1951 and lived much of his life on a farm near Wilmington, Delaware. He came to Iowa in 1969 to attend Iowa State University earning a Bachelor of Science (BA) Degree in 1977. He later graduated from the Drake University Law School in 1977 with his Juris Doctorate (JD) degree.
After being admitted to the practice law in 1977, Don worked in private practice before becoming an assistant with the U.S. Attorney’s Southern District Office in 1978. In 1980, Nickerson rejoined private practice, working for the Allen, Babich & Bennett Firm, later becoming a partner in the firm of Babich & Nickerson. He remained there until he was nominated for the post of U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Iowa, in December 1993. After being appointed by President Clinton, Don managed 25 attorneys and staff in the Des Moines and Davenport Branches. Also during his tenure as U.S. Attorney, he served as a member of the National U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, providing direct advice to U.S. Attorney Janet Reno. Nickerson was appointed chair of the Attorney General’s Health Care Fraud Subcommittee and worked to institute the nationwide Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. Don also chaired the Demand Reduction Subcommittee of the Midwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA), implementing strategies to deter methamphetamine usage through education and awareness. In June 2001 Don left the U.S. Attorney’s Office and moved into corporate practice as Associate General Counsel at Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield, handling compliance cases related to HIPPA, until June 2003.
The son of a Methodist Episcopal Bishop, Don placed great importance on religion and believed that the faith he grew up with motivated him for public service. On July 11, 2003 Nickerson was sworn in as a District Court Judge for the Fifth District of Iowa. While on the bench, he took an interest in the many issues surrounding immigration and the plight of the poor and downtrodden. Don advocated for gun buy-back programs and was instrumental in helping community groups design programs to reduce drug-related criminal activity. He made several controversial decisions that impacted the community, stating: “The law needs to bend to accommodate the ever-changing society in which we live.” Don felt that being appointed a judge “capped off some of the goals” he had worked for all his life and believed he was sent to the position to “help all people.”
Don was a lecturer with the Iowa State Bar Association, the Iowa National Bar Association, and the National Prosecutors Association. He also was an instructor at Drake University’s Legal Clinic and taught classes at DMACC.
Don was a member of the Iowa Supreme Court’s Equity in the Courts Task Force and worked with many civic and community organizations, including Urban Dreams. Nickerson served as a District Court Judge until 2011, when he retired for health reasons and moved to Palm Beach, Florida.
A member of several religious congregations in Des Moines, Don was an active member of the St. Paul AME Men’s Choir and enjoyed singing and impacting young people in the community.
Judge Nickerson was married to Debbie Nickerson. At his death, he is survived by three children: Kristen, Jordan, and Darian. Judge Nickerson’s interest was always in providing service to mankind.
The legal community and the public are invited to a Memorial Service to honor and celebrate Judge Nickerson’s life on November 4, 2017 at 5 p.m. at Corinthian Baptist Church, 814 School Street, Des Moines, Iowa. Please feel free to come casually dressed. A Scholarship Fund for law students has been created, and donations may be sent to the DON NICKERSON SCHOLARSHIP FUND, c/o Morris Fund (a 501(3)(c) Corporation) P.O Box 12145, Des Moines, IA 50312.