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Iowa federal judge blasts conservatives

'Judicial activism' is practiced more heavily on the right than the left, Mark Bennett says.

Bert Dalmer, Des Moines Regisnter, March 1, 2006

A federal judge in Iowa accused some of his conservative colleagues Tuesday of practicing their own brand of judicial activism, a term favored by right-wing groups to accuse liberal judges of making laws rather than applying them.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, in a public forum at Drake University on the judiciary and the media, responded to a question on judicial activism by blasting conservatives, who have used the phrase to describe a myriad of recent court decisions, on issues from affirmative action and campaign-finance reform to the definition of marriage and abortion rights.

"I will say this, and it's not going to be popular, but I believe it to my core: There's more judicial activism from the conservative judges than any liberal judges. There's no question about that in my mind," Bennett said.

"I'll debate anybody, anywhere, anytime on that issue about who the judicial activists are in the federal judiciary. They're not the Clinton appointees or the so-called liberal justices, I'll guarantee you that."

Bennett, himself a 1994 appointee of President Clinton, forcefully objected to past press reports that made a presidential link. Bennett also bristled at newspapers' references to his previous work as an attorney for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, implying that the characterization insinuates a political agenda.

"We don't wear some of those yellow bands on our arms saying, 'What would Senator Grassley do?' " Bennett said, referring to the Republican from Iowa. "Every judge, to the best of their ability, sets that aside, and they call it the way they see it. All of our judicial philosophy is shaped by our entire life's history.

"I think that using 'Clinton appointee' or 'President Bush appointee' is a code word, just like 'judicial activism' is a code word for something (people) disagree with."

Later, Bennett declined to elaborate on his accusations, or to identify the judges who he felt were making laws from the bench.

Bennett was recently embroiled in a running confrontation with a Bush appointee, U.S. Attorney Charles Larson, over the judge's decisions to reduce prison terms for certain types of defendants. Bennett initiated contempt charges in 2004 against a Larson prosecutor who had repeatedly challenged his decisions, but dropped the matter after he was accused in court documents of improperly intimidating the attorney.

On Tuesday, Bennett told a group of 70 people that he has rarely been recognized as a liberal in the "hundreds" of instances in which he has increased prison sentences for criminal defendants.

"When I give a defendant a much higher sentence than what the guidelines call for, I never once see it prefaced (in the newspaper) by, 'Judge Bennett, former ACLU lawyer.' Never once," he said.

Bennett oversees the Northern District of Iowa from Sioux City.

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