UW School of Law
Transcript - Gates PSL Speaker Series 2009-2010 : Judge Mark W. Bennett
Mark W. Bennett, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa October 5, 2009
Well good afternoon, everyone. I'm Kellye Testy, your dean, and it's
really nice to see you all here. I want to congratulate you on making a
good decision by being here today. I had some time to speak with Judge
Bennett this afternoon and I know that you're in for a real treat.
is the first in the Speaker Series for the Gates Public Service Law
Program at the University of Washington School of Law, and so I wanted
to take a minute to greet you today and to let you know just how
pleased I am that this program is here at the UW Law School.
This program is designed to bring public service programming
throughout the student body, throughout the Law School, to be kind of
our center of inspiration toward public service. And I think it does an
excellent job with that, and I want to congratulate Director Michele
Storms on the tremendous leadership that she brings to the School of
Yeah, let's just thank her for her good work.
I think it's really important, as all of you who know me and
know my background, you know I have a strong commitment to public
service, public interest, to equal justice for all. And I think that
one of the things this program has done a remarkable job in doing is
making clear that no matter what it is you do in law, you can give
You, too, can play a role in public service. That it is not a
matter of certain jobs, although we certainly need a lot of lawyers in
all walks of law practice, but that no matter what our role in law, we
have an obligation to give back, we have an obligation to be public
servants. And this program has certainly brought forth some wonderful
inspiration for that in the range of speakers.
Now, I won't take more of your time today but I do want to take
a minute to let you know that Professor Paul Miller will be introducing
our speaker today. And I just couldn't be happier to be on the same
faculty than with Professor Miller.
He's the Henry M. Jackson Professor of Law here; he is an
expert on disability law and employment discrimination. And I have to
say that I have told many people that I would do a lot of things for
the United States, but I didn't want President Obama to keep him, I
wanted him back. And I am just delighted that he is back with the
School of Law this year.
So, Professor Miller, I'll leave this to you. Thank you.
Professor Paul Miller:
Thank you. I'm going to use the table over here even though it screws up the thing, the video.
is really a great privilege and I'm really excited to be able to
introduce you to Judge Mark Bennett, who's been my friend for many,
many years, to the law school, and who is the first Gates Public
Service speaker of this new academic year. And we're in for a real
As I was looking at the title of his talk, "Civil Rights
Raconteur to Federal Judge, My Life's Blueprint," I think it's really
an appropriate title for Judge Bennett. He was appointed a US district
judge for the Northern District of Iowa in 1994, one of the early
President Clinton appointees and confirmations. And he was made chief
judge of that district in the year 2000.
I think it's appropriate, the titles are particularly
appropriate because I do recall sitting at a bar one night with Judge
Bennett, and musing to each other, each of us musing to the other. And
the topic that we were particularly musing about that night was how is
it possible that Mark Bennett ever got appointed and confirmed as a US
district judge. Didn't they read his resume? Don't they know anything
about this guy?
And he is not a likely judge, but I am glad he is on the bench.
And he has been a magnificent jurist, not only in Iowa but for the
He started out his career as a civil rights attorney doing
employment discrimination cases, constitutional law cases. He was also
active with organized labor, and ultimately was appointed by President
Clinton, nominated and confirmed by Bill Clinton to be on the federal
Judge Bennett and I crossed paths, I would say maybe initially
or early on in our friendship or our experience together, in a case in
which we filed when I was commissioner of the EEOC, called US, or EEOC
v. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad, which was the first
genetic discrimination case ever filed in the United States, and to
this day the only case ever filed which was an employment
discrimination case on behalf of plaintiffs who were alleging that they
were being discriminated against based upon their genetic markers,
their genetic predisposition for illness that may occur at some point
in the future.
We filed this first case in history, and as some of you 1Ls
may ultimately learn, we sort of were looking to find a place to file
this case which mixed issues of privacy, civil rights law, technology,
it was really cutting edge.
And lo and behold, we were lucky enough to learn that seven
miles of Burlington Northern's railroad track happened to go through
the Northern District of Iowa. And lo and behold, that was where we
felt our clients' rights would be best served, and so we filed the case
in front of Judge Bennett.
He was a wonderful judge because of his love for technology and his thoughtfulness about justice and fairness.
It's appropriate that he's here today because Judge Bennett also
shares a tremendous love and appreciation and respect not only for the
bench and for the bar, the practicing bar, but also for young attorneys
and for teaching.
He is very concerned and well known for lectures on the state
of professionalism within the bar, and lectures frequently and teaches
at law schools in the Midwest and around the country, and also with
respect to CLE programs for established lawyers.
I am most pleased that you're going to get a chance to hear
from my friend of many years. He's not only my friend of many years
through the bar, through other activities, but he is in fact, I
believe, in fact I know because I just checked, my only article three
Facebook friend that I have.
He is my friend on Facebook, and I think it gives you
tremendous additional insights into Judge Bennett. Certainly his love
for wasabi is mentioned several times within his Facebook page. But
what struck me were the two quotes that I just want to end with which
he puts up there on his Facebook page, which I think give tremendous
insight into Judge Bennett's perspective and his values.
And the first is by Howard Aiken, who says, "Don't worry about
people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are very good you'll just
shove them down people's throats." And secondly by Mark Twain, which
is, "Always do right. This will gratify some and astonish others."
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to introduce you to Judge Bennett.
Judge Mark Bennett:
Thank you so very, very much, Paul. I've had some amazing and
bewildering introductions over the years, and I just wanted to share
one that wasn't quite as gracious, but ties into Paul's introduction.
don't know how many of you know this, but before you are nominated to
be a United States district court judge, you have to go through a very
extensive FBI background check. In fact, the FBI has to interview 200
people from your past that know you. That's the minimum. That's the
In my case, they went all the way back to grade school. My
lifelong nickname is Buzz. So for about a four-month period, I was
getting calls at home from people I hadn't talked to in years. They
would say, "What's going on? The FBI came to our house this afternoon
and wanted to know all about this Mark Bennett character."
Now they don't tell the people they're interviewing that I'm
about to be hopefully nominated as a federal judge. So I'd get these
calls, and they'd say, "What's going on? Are you about to be indicted?"
I had about six in row that said, "Are you about to be indicted?"
I developed an appropriate response. "That depends on two things: how
good your memory is, and whether the statute of limitations has run."
It was really a daunting time in my life. They had six FBI
agents on our block for four days talk to everybody actually in a
two-block area. They went back and drummed up grade-school friends,
looked at all my grade-school records throughout my entire life.
I was sharing this with my best friend in law school. So right
after I was appointed, he was introducing me at a continuing legal
education program in Iowa. He explained this story about the FBI
background check, and then he said, "I want you to meet Mark Bennett,
our newest federal district court judge and living proof that the FBI
is the most overrated investigatory agency in the world."
So here I am. It's a great privilege to have two of my very
good Seattle friends here, Paul Miller, who introduced me, and Mike
Reiss, who I'm about to embarrass. Mike, would you raise your hand?
I'm a strange choice, I think, a very strange choice to be the first Gates speaker this year.
Reiss, for example, as I recall, he's a senior partner at Davis,
Wright, and Tremaine, a nationally recognized employment discrimination
lawyer, a Harvard graduate, Yale law school, editor-in-chief I think of
the law review, taught at Southern California Law School, worked in the
EEOC, and then Seattle's fortunate enough to have him as a lawyer here.
He would have been a great choice to give this lecture, but I
was the one that got chosen. I was not editor-in-chief of my law
review. I wasn't on the junior staff. I wasn't on the senior staff. I
wasn't notes editor. I wasn't an articles editor.
I think you get it. I wasn't on law review. I wasn't Order of
the Coif, and though I was honored to graduate, I did not graduate with
honors. I did not even win a single law school competition, unless you
count Taco Tuesday when I was a 3L, where I ate the most $0.25 tacos at
a local bar.
I was not a top student, and when I was reading the flier
outside, I noticed that I went to Duke Law School. Well, that would
have been impressive, but I went to Drake, not Duke. But they get
confused frequently. So I went to an average, mediocre law school and
was a mediocre student there.
But long before I went to law school, I knew it was in my
life's blueprint to be a civil rights lawyer. I also had this suspicion
from within that I would probably hang out my own shingle and do it my
way, because I figured nobody would likely want me.
I did not clerk for a prestigious federal judge when I
graduated from law school. I didn't even clerk for a part-time state
court magistrate. I actually only applied for one job.
It was at the Polk County Legal Aid Society, and I was thinking
that if they would actually hire me, it would spare me the torment of
starting my own law firm. The problem was the director of the Polk
County Legal Aid Society gave me a D+ in consumer rights in law school,
so it's no surprise that I wasn't hired as a legal aid lawyer.
Now, life is full of interesting twists, because after I
graduated from law school I started my own law firm, and in six years,
guess what? I was president of the Legal Aid Society board. I was his
boss. So there are strange twists in life.
I'm not here because I showed potential in law school, because
I didn't. But law school gave me the tools to reach my potential, and
law school gave me a deep sense of the importance of constitutional law
as a way to achieve social justice.
I did not spend a lot of time with my case books. I was given
an award at our senior class, our 3L graduation party, as the student
who got the highest grade point relying exclusively on Gilbert's. I was
fairly proud of that.
But while my colleagues were studying their case books, I can
honestly say I did this. I started with the 1803 decision in Marbury
against Madison, and every night in the law library, I would usually be
the last one to leave - it was usually early in the morning the next
day - because my goal in law school was to read and study every single
United States Supreme Court case since Marbury that raised a federal
While I did not spend a lot of time in my income tax case book
or in the IRS code, I did spend a tremendous amount of time
self-studying constitutional law.
I grew up in a tiny, teeny little town, Circle Pines,
Minnesota. I wasn't that great of a student in high school, either. In
college, I did fairly well.
But I turned this passion that I developed in law school for
constitutional law into being a successful civil rights lawyer. I had
the privilege of trying cases in over 50 United States district courts.
I've argued in over half of the United States courts of
appeals. I've argued in about a dozen state courts. I had the privilege
of arguing my very first case in the United States Supreme Court when I
was 28 years old. My first four cert petitions were granted.
I thought, this is easy. You file a cert petition, they grant it, off you go to Washington. What's the big deal about that?
I was once introduced at a CLE program as "the lawyer who sued
President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the nine justices of the Iowa
Supreme Court, in a 30-day period, in federal court, and won all three
cases. I bring you warm greetings from the progressive state of Iowa.
Where, in 1869, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that it was
unconstitutional not to admit women to the state Bar. 1869. And
Arabella Mansfield was admitted to the Iowa Bar, and became the first
woman lawyer in the United States 20 years before Washington was
admitted as a state. But 44 years after Arabella Mansfield, Washington
admitted Reba Hurn, a Spokane woman, who became the first woman to be
admitted in Washington.
Reba Hurn, was born in 1881 in Clear Lake, Iowa, and her father was a
Iowa lawyer, and later became a judge and then decided in 1905 to move
his practice to Spokane. And they came out here, and she became the
first woman lawyer in the state of Washington .
Now, I graduated from law school nearly 35 years ago. I'm 59
years old. I've been a United States district court judge -- I'm in my
15th year. I was a very active civil rights litigator for 17 years. In
the course of that time, I've developed a perspective, and I think a
perspective is very important in life. And some people have a sense of
perspective, and some don't.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was out walking my dogs on a
Saturday afternoon, and I ran across our nine-year-old neighbor, Alex.
Alex is kind of an interesting kid. His father is a cardiologist, and
his mother is a cardiac surgeon. Alex obviously shares some of that
gene pool, and he's a very, very bright kid. And whenever he sees me,
he always asks me about my docket, and what cases I'm working on.
So we had that kind of discussion, and I said to him, "Alex,
I've never asked you this. What would you like to be when you grow up?"
And I was expecting some kind of astounding...way up here...he would
set his sights very high. Without missing a beat, Alex said, "I want to
be garbage man." And I said, "Well, that's an interesting choice. Why
would you want to pick up garbage?"
And he looked at me, and he goes, "Because they only work one day a week."
Alex does not have a very broad [laughs] sense of perspective.
I want to take you back in time. I was a junior in high school. The
date is October 17, 1967. The place is the auditorium of the Norris
Barratt Junior High School in South Philadelphia. The speaker was
giving his first speech in Philadelphia, and he was assassinated six
months after this speech. It's Martin Luther King.
it's really my...I'm a really quote freak, but this is my favorite
quote from all time. And here's what Martin Luther King had to say:
"What is your life's blueprint? This is the most important and
crucial period of your lives, for what you do now, and what you decide
now at this age, may well determine which way your life shall go. And
when you discover what you will be in life, set out to do it as if God
Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. If
it falls on your lot to be a street sweeper" -- like Alex, picking up
garbage -- "sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep
streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare
wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of Heaven and
Earth will have to pause and say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper
who swept well.'"
My calling in life was to be a civil rights lawyer. Martin
Luther King talked about it in another speech. He talked about a "drum
major for justice." I'd like to think that I was a ferocious civil
rights advocate for my clients. Also on my Facebook page, Professor
Miller, is a man with a very large sword, a gigantic sword, and a long
cape. And underneath it, the simple word "justice."
I have kind of three core values in life, two of which you have
probably heard before. I'm fairly confident one of which, you haven't.
The first one is, that whatever you do in life, do it with an
unrelenting passion. I really believe that. Whether your calling in
life is to be a corporate lawyer or in private practice, or defending
Fortune 500 companies, or suing them, or in Legal Aid, or in public
service, it's all about passion. Go where your passion takes you.
I had a fascinating parenting moment a few years ago. It was
about this time of year. I have only one child, Sarah. She was a senior
in high school, and we were going on a practice college visit to the
University of South Dakota because it's just thirty miles away. She had
no interest in going there, but I wanted her to do a practice visit.
And we're driving up to the University of South Dakota, and
she's shuffling through the materials, and she goes, "Daddy, I have to
visit two departments." And I said, "Well, that's good. What do you
think you might like to major in?"
And she said, "Well, let me look, " and she came up with
something kind of crazy, like communications and something else, and I
said, "Well that's interesting." I said, "But sweetie, your passion in
life has always been art. Have you thought about majoring in art?"
And she started to cry. And it was one of the neatest moments
in my life. I actually pulled the car over and I said, "What's wrong?"
And she said, "Daddy, I didn't realize I could major in art. How would
I ever make a living?"
And I said, "Sweetie, don't worry about that. My passion is
law. Yours is art. Go where your passion takes you. The job, I
guarantee you, will take care of itself." She's an art major at Lake
Forest College in Chicago and just loves it. She has found her calling.
I found my calling very early, which I think makes me kind of
weird. I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer when I was seven
years old. My mother was pretty ill when I was young, and we had an
African-American nanny named Tessie, who was really like my second
mother. Sometimes she stayed over night with us, sometimes she didn't.
I was very close to her, really as close to her as I was my own mother.
And she grew up in St. Paul, and St. Paul was a very segregated
city in her childhood. She was in her 40's when I met her. And I used
to sit on her lap after I came home from school, and she would regale
me with stories about her childhood. And with no bitterness, she would
tell me about the fact that she couldn't drink out of the same water
fountains as white folk. She couldn't go to restaurants. She literally
had to sit on the back of the bus.
That hit a chord with me, that I instantly knew I wanted to do
something about that. My folks belonged to the ACLU, but they weren't
active members at all. We had no lawyer ever in the family. I started
reading about the ACLU, and then I kind of focused on the fact that I
wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.
When I was 13, we had to write a paper about what we wanted to
be in life. I wrote a paper that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.
My mother was kind of my editor, she was fabulous. She had a masters
degree in English literature. I left it on the lazy Susan in the
kitchen, and I went to bed when I finished my paper.
My mother was at a PTA meeting, and when she came home that
night she read my paper. She came upstairs and she woke me up. It is as
if it happened yesterday. I remember her soft hand on my cheek, waking
me up with tears in the corner of her eyes that I could see the
reflection of the moonlight. My mother said to me, "Buzzy, I am so
proud of you, that you want to be a civil rights lawyer."
She tucked me in and I went to bed. The next day I went off to
school, and I came home from school that afternoon and my mother had
died from a heart attack. I found her dead in the kitchen. Life is
short and it is very uncertain. Another reason I think to pursue
whatever you do in life with great passion.
Now there is a corollary in life to this. I did not discover it
in law school, I was kind of in my thirties. And that is the most
meaningful and important moments in life...Now think about this, the
most meaningful and important moments in life are not the advertised
ones. They are not the graduation from UW Law School, they aren't
passing the bar, they're not becoming partner at a prestigious Seattle
law firm. It's not about being appointed to United States District
Court Judge. It's certainly not the even the traditional stuff, the
weddings, the birthdays, the anniversaries.
The real important moments are much less obvious. They knock on
the front door of life unannounced. You have to be open to seeing them.
I'll share a couple of my most important moments.
I remember when I was a young lawyer, getting ready to start a
two week trial. It was where I had sued the nine members of the Iowa
Supreme Court. There was a very skilled lawyer on the other side. I
feared him deeply. Before the trial he came over to see me. He sensed
how scared I was, because he was a very skilled lawyer. He sat me down
and he just said basically, "Don't worry, everything is going to be OK.
You're a really good lawyer, you've got your experts lined up. We are
going to try a good lawsuit and you're going to do a good job. I know
you will." He was very encouraging, and that left a huge impression on
You get an email from a younger lawyer that you've mentored and
probably forgot about, and they write to thank you. I got a call this
week from a lawyer that I had sent to prison from a very prominent
family in Cedar Rapids. His father was a lawyer I tried cases against.
I tried cases against each of his three brother who were lawyers.
I sent him to prison and he called me. This has been over a
decade ago. He called to thank me for the fact that I had sent him to
prison, because he has now turned his life around and things were going
great. What an unexpected special moment that is.
I think these moments kind of enrich your life, they kind of
define it. Look at all of the things that you have to be grateful for.
The friends you've made in law school, the friends that you will make.
The fact that you are going to a top law school with an industrious
faculty. The leadership and vision of your new dean, Kellye Testy. You
have a lot to be grateful for. You will be proud of this law school
experience until the end of your days.
I've always taught, for the last 25 years at Drake Law School.
High on the wall outside the classroom that I teach, engraved in stone,
is a biblical passage. I'm about the last person in the world to quote
the Bible, but I love this passage and it goes like this. "They that
instruct many in the ways of justice, shall shine like the stars
forever." Daniel 12:3.
Be thankful for your outstanding faculty that you have here. I
was deeply grateful for the opportunity to go to law school. I worked
very hard, I had to put myself through law school. I worked four part
time jobs. I started my own law firm with my two best friends, because
the legal aid director didn't hire me. It was the best thing that ever
happened to me in life.
We started our own law firm in an abandoned public school, in
the inner city in Des Moines, Iowa because we got free rent. They were
so excited that a law firm would be moving in. We were an unusual law
firm. We were the only law firm in Iowa to be integrated racially at
the partner level, and we were the only law firm in Iowa without a
We started with absolutely nothing. I had a bet with my two
partners, about who would get the first fee paying client. About a week
after we opened the doors, I had some people come in to see me about a
discrimination case. I gave them my newly minted business card, and I
was so sure they were going to hire me. They said they wanted to think
They left about 11:30, so I ran into my partner's offices and
said, "I'm buying you guys lunch because I just know they are going to
hire me, let's go eat."
So we walked outside and I looked down at the curb, and there was my business card ripped in half. Another great lesson in life.
Right? Literally kicked to the curb. I looked at my partners and
I said, "We only have one place to go from here, and that's up, and
Looking back at my beginning, it's one of the things that I am
most proud of in life. That we started from scratch with literally
nothing, and built a very, very successful law firm. Not because we
were the brightest law students, but because we were the hardest
working law students.
The very first case that I filed in federal court later that
year, a case called Joseph Evans against Oscar Mayer went to the United
States Supreme Court. I got to personally argue the case, just three
years out of law school.
I was blessed to be able to try many fascinating civil rights
cases on cutting edge issues. I tried the first federal constitutional
challenge to state prisons, for failing to allow Native Americans erect
sweat lodges in the prison. I'll never forget the headlines of the Des
Moines Register: "Lawyer Sues for Sauna in Prison."
My very first client - this is a great story. My very first client...
In Iowa, they just changed it recently in the last few years.
You used to take the bar exam on Monday, Tuesday, and half a day
Wednesday, all essay.
They started grading your essay exams Monday when you turned in
your first group Monday morning. So on Wednesday evening, they posted
the results. It was like instant notification.
I passed the bar. I found out Wednesday night. I astounded my
classmates. I bassed the bar exam, was sworn in the next day. On
Friday, I was appointed in my very first case.
I'll never forget this as long as I live. Her name was Mary Sue
Spurling, and her crime in life? She tried to deposit a bottle of wine
and a loaf of bread in her checking account at the Iowa-Des Moines
The clerk was very perplexed, and things got a little bit out
of hand because she was insistent that she had a right to deposit a
loaf of bread and a bottle of wine in her checking account.
They wound up taking her to the public mental health facility
and bringing a civil commitment proceeding against her. That civil
commitment proceeding started the next Monday morning at nine a.m., and
I was appointed Friday afternoon. I'd just passed the bar.
So I went to my partners to say, "What do we do now?" I started
preparing for this hearing, and I called a couple lawyers to find out
what it was like.
I was shocked to find out that there wasn't even a court
reporter there, and that the state statute had no burden of proof, no
procedural safeguards, no right to subpoena witnesses, nothing that I
had studied in constitutional law.
I showed up early for this hearing, and I brought my tape
recorder because I wanted to make a record. I had written motions to
dismiss that I had prepared over the weekend, and I filed those.
The administrative law judge said, "No, you can't have your
tape recorder. You can't make a record, and no, I'm not taking any
motions," and proceeded to find my client that was mentally ill. The
problem was she was then going to be transferred to one of four state
hospitals in all different parts of Iowa.
So I went back to my office - that was a Monday afternoon by
the time the hearing was over - and I really didn't know what to do. I
talked to my partners, and I said, "I'm going to file a writ of habeas
I started doing a little bit of research, and then we hadn't
hired a secretary yet. I wasn't a very good typist. I started typing
out a writ of habeas corpus. The problem was I was a slow typist. I
wasn't going to get it done before the courthouse closed, and they were
going to transfer her the following morning.
I had read about a judge in the paper, just his name, and I
remembered it. I looked him up in the phone book. First I called down
to the courthouse. They said he was gone.
So I called him at home, and I said, "Your Honor, I'm Mark
Bennett, and I'm a brand-new lawyer. I'm working on a writ of habeas
corpus. I'm a slow typist. I don't have a secretary yet. I think I'll
probably have it done about eight o'clock. Can I come by your house?"
He said, "Absolutely."
So I finished it. I went by his house. Leo Oxberger was his name
- Oxberger. I presented him the writ, and he was impressed. He said,
"Do you know what you need to do now?"
I said, "I have no idea."
He said, "Well, you need to serve Broadlands Hospital."
I said, "Well, I know their executive director is Charles Ingersoll because I looked it up."
He said, "You need to find out where he lives or serve him first thing in the morning."
He drafted an order of service, because I hadn't done the right
paperwork. He was very kind to me. I actually found out the guy's
address, and about 11:00 at night, knocked on his door, served him with
these papers, and got an injunction preventing Mary Sue Spurling from
Ultimately, in another case that went to federal court, a case
that went to the Eighth Circuit I think three times, we ultimately had
the Iowa civil commitment statute declared unconstitutional.
So I had a lot of really fun cases and a great opportunity. I
said at lunch that my clients list looked like the who's who in a
strange land. I represented the ACLU, the Socialist Workers Party, the
Ku Klux Klan, one of my favorite clients, ACORN. Boy, it would be fun
to be back in private practice now.
I represented Reverend Moon and the Unification Church, the
Hare Krishnas. Now keeping those two at bay, that was no easy task. But
my favorite - my favorite client of all time - was the holy bishop Zevs
Cosmos of the Nudist Christian Church.
I think I have had a number of firsts in my life, but I'm
pretty confident that I'm the only federal judge that at their
investiture was presented a T-shirt from Zevs Cosmos. On the T-shirt it
said, "Go naked if the Holy Spirit moves you."
I represented actually the Nudist Christian Church in
litigation all over the United States. Mostly, most of the cases looked
like this. Zevs Cosmos would wear this sandwich board. You know what a
sandwich board is? It's a sign, and it would say, "Go naked if the Holy
Spirit moves you."
He loved to pick high schools and the public sidewalk in front
of high schools. He had a clear First Amendment right to do it, but
you'd be surprised at how many times he got arrested. You'd be
I was 43 when I was appointed by President Bush. I was the
first Drake Law grad to be a United States district court judge in
Iowa. Drake Law School was founded in 1865. My math is not very good.
That's 129 years.
Why me? I've often thought that. I don't know the answer. I
think it had to do with the fact that Senator Harkin and President
Clinton were impressed by the fact that I was a very zealous advocate
on behalf of my clients, but highly professional.
I had great respect for the other side in litigation. In fact,
most of my long-standing good friends, my really close friends, are
lawyers that I had a chance to try cases against.
As much as I love being a civil rights lawyer, I just love
being a federal district court judge. I'm in my 15th year now. It's a
wonderful job. I love the variety. One week we might try a
methamphetamine drug conspiracy case; the next week a patent case, a
product liability case.
I'm gearing up for a very large antitrust case involving ice
cream sandwiches and the chocolate wafers of ice cream sandwiches.
Would you believe that one company has 99 percent of the North American
market share, and a little teeny startup company in Iowa has one
They're suing Interbake and Norse Dairy for antitrust
violations. Two huge national law firms that are getting ready to do
I've had an opportunity to hear every type of case you can
imagine in federal court. Several years back I tried two death penalty
cases, very daunting. Very daunting. We had six US Marshals living in
our home for six months.
My daughter Sarah started high school with two US Marshals at
her side. She couldn't go to the bathroom in her public high school
without one US marshal going in and clearing it, and then one US
marshal taking her in, and the one that cleared it coming out and
guarding the door.
Everywhere my wife and daughter went for six months, they had
two US Marshals at their side. I was driven to work by a US marshal and
driven back from the courthouse by a US Marshal.
When I worked every night on these cases in my study, I had a
US Marshal sitting in the study with me. Our house was surrounded by US
Marshals with assault rifles.
Every morning when the defendant in the first case was moved
from the county jail to the courthouse, we moved him generally at 4:00
in the morning, and there would usually be four to six assassin-type
guys -- what are those guys called? Marksmen, yeah -- snipers on the
roof of the courthouse.
They would move the defendant in vans, with a group of agents
behind them and in front of them, and block off the streets when they
A former ACLU lawyer, I never thought in a million years, I
would have an anonymous jury. I didn't even know their names or where
they came from, other then the Northern District of Iowa.
I authorized the defendant to be bolted to the floor. So every
morning before the jury came in, he was bolted to the floor in the
courtroom. We had put a titanium bolt into the floor. When the jurors
were brought in, they went to secret locations everyday, and then they
were bussed-in in two different vans.
Very, very stressful. You know what was stressful about it?
Trying to make sure that I could give the defendants the fairest trial
I was capable of. That's what was stressful. It was a new area to me,
hundreds of pretrial motions. I think when we finished; we had
published 43 decisions in death penalty law.
Not once, not once during that trial, did I ever regret for a
second, the privilege of becoming a US district court judge, and doing
Now my second point, and this the one that I don't think you've
ever heard anybody say this before. I know I haven't in my life. I
really believe in this, "You never stand taller or shine brighter, then
when you extend your hand in friendship to someone in real need,
someone at their low point in life."
Think about it. In good times, friends are easy to have. It's
the tough times in life. Let me give you an example. Several of my
classmates have been disbarred. Do you know what a piranha it is to be
a disbarred lawyer? I've always called them up, gone to see them, taken
them out for dinner, send them personal notes. That's a very hard thing
to do, to lose your license.
I've had several lawyer friends go to prison. I've done the
same thing. I've made the effort to visit them. So when a classmate or
a fellow lawyer in your community falls from grace, the easy thing to
do is to do what everybody else does, and that's pretend they don't
It's really chicken soup for the soul, to extend a hand of
friendship to them. You will be ostracized for doing it, but I think
you will find it very fulfilling. If someone from your community never
had a chance to fall from grace, because they never rose above their
life circumstances high enough to fall, they need your friendship too.
It's very important to develop friendships with people in all stations
One of the things I'm most proud of is that in every single
building I've ever worked in, including our US courthouse, I know the
names of every son and daughter of every cleaning person, that has ever
cleaned space that I've worked in. That's important in life.
Just because you get Article three wonder dust sprinkled on
your head, and you become a US states court--I'm sorry, a federal
district court judge doesn't make you better than anybody else. We all
put our pants on one leg at a time.
That's why I visit inmates. To my knowledge, I'm the only
federal judge in the country. I started visiting inmates eight years
ago. There are 118 federal prisons. I've been to nearly half. This
year, I've been to 10. Three weeks ago, I was in two prisons in
Minnesota, and two in Wisconsin. I had visited 126 inmates that I had
sentenced, including four people serving life sentences.
I talked to them in a group, and then anybody that wanted to
talk to me one-to-one. I find it unbelievably inspirational, because I
find the ability of people to change and make big changes in their
life, and set their goals high and try and do some positive things, is
very, very fulfilling.
It's hard for me to explain. I've been trying to write an
article about why I visit inmates. I'm not sure I understand it
totally, but I know it's important to me. I know this, and I really
believe it. Some people say it, I really believe it. "The difference
between where they're sitting, and where I'm sitting, " we're in the
same room in the prison. We're sitting right next to each other. "The
difference, a very thin line."
I don't think most people believe that. It's a very thin line,
a very thin line. A couple bad decisions that I made where I didn't get
caught, or a couple decisions that I made that were pretty good when I
could have made a bad one, I could be sitting where they are.
A couple of good decisions that they would have made instead of
bad decisions, they could have been a US district court judge. So weave
your friendships whenever you can.
The other quote on my Facebook page is from Pericles, the
Athenian statesman. He said, "What you leave behind is not what is
engraved in stone monuments, but is woven into the lives of others." So
weave in the lives of others, have an impact in the lives of others.
The third thing I want to finish up with is the Mark Twain
quote that Paul Miller sent; "Always do right, this will gratify some
and astonish the rest." "Represent a client in an unpopular case."
"Speak out against oppression and injustice." Here's a big one for me,
"Do not tell lawyer jokes." I think it demeans all of us.
Since I've been a young child, I've been able to stand up to
injustice. I think it was instilled in my parents. I had this
experience in first grade. My best friend in kindergarten was Robert
Miller. This was in St. Paul, Randolph Heights Elementary School.
I didn't really realize at the time, but he was slow in
learning. In first grade, my first grade teacher one day was really
frustrated with Robert. She said to another student, right in front of
Robert and me, she said, "If you don't work harder, you're going to
windup just like Robert Miller."
I jumped out of my seat, and I said, "Mrs. Churchill, don't you
ever say that about my friend." She grabbed me by the ear, and marched
me all the way to the principals office, by my ear. It had to be a
Wednesday, because my father was home. He was a children's dentist, and
every other Wednesday he worked in a free cleft palate clinic, and then
the other Wednesday he took the day off.
He came up to school, and we just lived three houses from
school. He came into the room and I was sobbing. The Principal, Mr.
Campin, was lecturing me on how disrespectful I was. My father didn't
say anything. The Principal said, "Well, you should take your son home,
because he's obviously upset."
We were walking home, and my dad had his arm around me. He
said, "You know, I'm really proud of what you did." He said, "You stood
up for something that was an injustice and you saw it as an injustice."
And my dad said something I will never forget, "You never get a second
chance to stand up to injustice."
You have a great injustice here at the University of Washington
Law School that I will close with. Takuji Yamashita, how many of you
have seen the porcelain statue of him sitting? Have you all seen it?
You all know his story?
He graduated, I believe second in a class of 10 in 1902, one of
the most diverse classes the University of Washington Law School has
ever had. Three women, an African American from Barbados and Takuji,
who came over from Japan, from a little fishing village.
And he went to work in Spokane, I'm sorry, Tacoma, at a
Japanese restaurant that was owned by a Japanese person who came over
from the same little fishing village. And he lived in a mission and
went to high school in two years, had a photographic memory.
Graduated from this law school, took the bar exam, scored
incredibly well, but he wasn't allowed, the State Supreme Court didn't
allow him to practice law because he wasn't a citizen. And he sued,
filed a 28 page brief which I've read. I encourage you all to read it,
too. It was an excellent piece of scholarship. Washington Supreme
Court, five white males, turned him down.
He ultimately then went to the US Supreme Court on another case that related to the same issue. They turned him down, too.
After Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, there were 12, 892
Asian Americans in King County that were incarcerated. He was one of
Long after his death in 2001, the Asian American Bar
Association and this law school, which you should be very proud of,
petitioned the Washington State Supreme Court to admit him
posthumously, which he was done, one of the few times that's ever been
done in any state supreme court.
Well, it's time for me to close. I wanted to share with you
what I consider to be the greatest accomplishment in my life next to
raising my daughter.
It is not being a federal judge. It is not arguing in the
United States Supreme Court. In a couple of months I'm fairly confident
that I will be the lowest ranking member of any law school class to
have an article published in the "Harvard Law Review, " but that's not
what I consider to be a noteworthy accomplishment, it's just kind of
The thing I'm most proud of is having the privilege of
representing clients. There is nothing like it. And I represented
Fortune 500 companies, and I'm proud of the fact that I represented
Fortune 500 companies. And thank you for helping put my daughter
through college on the fees I earned.
That was interesting but not really fulfilling to me. What was
fulfilling to me was representing the downtrodden and the oppressed,
the folks who had been discriminated against, the people who didn't
really have a voice. They came to me, little old Mark Bennett, asked me
to represent them.
And that, knowing that you were zealous and did everything you
could. And my pledge was I would never be outworked. I litigated
against some of the top national law firms from Washington and New
York, and this little old Des Moines civil rights lawyer never did get
And so, if you have the privilege of representing a client,
particularly one who doesn't have a voice, that's the most wonderful
thing there is I think in the practice of law.
I'm going to close with my favorite quote from the great
Victorian poet, Robert Browning. "Ah, but a person's reach should
exceed their grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Thank you very, very much.
OK, so I just want to say thank you so much, Judge Bennett. That was
outstanding. And you really obviously live your core values of
relentless passion and standing up for others and all of that good
stuff. So, I just feel really honored that you came out to open up our
year this year.
he has let me know that he is willing to entertain a couple of
questions before we dismiss for the reception. So if you have a burning
question now would be a great time to ask it.
Come on, you're law students. Yes.
Yeah, there's one.
Well, let me qualify that. The federal courts.
You're not putting yourself very well here.
I mean, I still think you can have a career as a civil rights lawyer. I
think it was easier in my time to kind of hang on a shingle and start
from scratch, but I think that can be done. And I'd really encourage
you to do it. I mean it's just so incredibly fulfilling.
the biggest impediment would be the federal courts, but I think that's
changing in this administration. President Obama is going to be able to
appoint a significant number of judges even if he's just a one term
president because there are so many openings now.
And so, you know you just kind of have to hang in there and the
tides are going to change at some point. So it may be rough going, but
you know, that makes it all the more fulfilling.
So, I think the only impediment really is yourself. I guess
that's what I'd say. If you really want it, you can do it. I mean don't
you think you can do anything you put your mind to? How about more?
Of course you can. And that's the big thing. Set your sights
high. The problem with most people is not that they set their goals too
high and fail to achieve them, but they set them too low and they reach
them. So set them high. You can achieve it. It just takes a lot of hard
work, a lot of hard work.
Yeah, I represented him in a number of cases, but usually it was
a denial of a permit to do a parade or to engage in otherwise First
Amendment activity, a protest. Yeah, I had not problems whatsoever. I
enjoyed representing him.
You're all invited to come down to room 115, and talk more with the
judge and with each other. And let's thank Judge Bennett one more time.