Member Spotlight: Retired U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett

Tell us about yourself
I am a 1975 graduate of the Drake University Law School and hung out a shingle with two of my closest friends and started our firm that was then Allen, Babich and Bennett. The very first case I filed I argued 3 1/2 years later in the U.S. Supreme Court and had three more certiorari petitions granted before I was 32. I specialized in civil rights, civil liberties, and employment law representing both plaintiffs and defendants. My client list was quite schizophrenic and included, e.g. Rev. Moon and the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Christian Nudist Church, the ACLU of Iowa, several fortune 500 companies, Lloyds of London, several smaller insurance companies, and several Iowa businesses.

In 1991, I was selected to fill the vacancy of Judge Ron Longstaff after he was elevated from his magistrate judge position to a federal district court judgeship. In 1994, Sen. Harkin recommended me and three others to fill the vacancy of Judge Donald E. O’Brien when he took senior status. I became an Article III judge in September of 1994. I sat by designation in the districts of North Dakota, Idaho, Arizona, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the M.D. of Florida. In my last seven years on the bench, I sat frequently by designation on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

I was enticed to leave a job I loved to become the first Director of the Drake University Law School’s Institute for Justice Reform & Innovation – an opportunity to make a small down payment on my debt of gratitude to Drake Law School. I also now have an active mediation, arbitration and legal consulting practice with a national scope.

What are some of your notable achievements?
Number one, without question, is being a parent to my 31-year-old daughter. Next would be trying as hard as I could to do justice in every decision I was called upon to make as a judge. My most challenging cases were the two federal death penalty cases I tried that resulted in more than 1200 pages of reported decisions on over 50 novel questions of federal death penalty law. My most impact on federal law was in federal sentencing. For example, I was once reversed three times by the Eight Circuit Court En Banc in two cases and two more times by panel opinions in those cases. In both cases my rulings were vindicated by the Supreme Court reversing the Eight Circuit and adopting my views on the sentences.

Why did you choose to practice law?
To be a voice for folks who needed one and to help clients solve critical problems.

Did you always want to be a judge?
As a practicing lawyer, almost exclusively in federal courts, I never had even an inkling of a thought of becoming a judge. I enjoyed my practice too much. In 1990 my son, David, died and I decided I wanted a more contemplative career and that I had placed too much importance on my private practice. That was the first time I ever thought about becoming a judge and it happened a year later.

What do you do to get away from work?
Traveling, bike riding, cooking, and watching British barrister, detective, and crime series. And, read pending cert. petitions. 🙂

What is the best thing about the Polk County Bar Association?
As there are fewer trials and email has to a large extent replaced face-to-face meetings among lawyers, the PCBA is a way to connect with fellow lawyers. There are so many outstanding lawyers in Polk County it’s great to learn from each other.

Best place to visit in Polk County?
A tie between the Hiland Bakery, Chocolatier Stam, and the Des Moines Art Center

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My mother died suddenly when I was a child and I and my siblings were raised, in part, by an African- American nanny. Her life experiences inspired me to become a civil rights lawyer.

If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor and why?
My mentors were the federal judges in the Southern and Northern Districts of Iowa that I routinely appeared before in both civil and criminal cases, especially Judge Harold D. Vietor. Nick Critelli was also an important mentor for me.

What is your favorite book?
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

What songs would you include on the soundtrack to your life?
For more than a decade as a practicing lawyer in Des Moines I listened to “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copeland and “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker hymn, all day every day, over and over and over again.

Words to live by?
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” – MLK, Jr. & Rev. Theodore Parker. And then I add: But the thing of it is – it does not bend on its own.