Judge C.J. Williams – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa

Judge C.J. Williams served as a law professor and a federal prosecutor for two decades before becoming a federal magistrate judge two years ago.  Last month, Williams was nominated for a lifetime judgeship on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.

Background

A native Iowan, Charles Joseph Williams was born in Cedar Rapids in 1963.  Williams received a B.A. with high distinction from the University of Iowa in 1985 and a J.D. with high distinction from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1988.  In 1997, he also received an LLM from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

After graduating law school, Williams clerked for Judge Donald O’Brien on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.[1]  After a two year clerkship, Williams joined the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division as a trial attorney, and spent a year at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney.[2]

In 1992, Williams joined the Kansas City law firm, Lathrop & Gage LLC.  In 1997, he returned to Iowa to become a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa.[3]  He held that position until 2016, when he was appointed to become a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Northern District, replacing Judge Leonard Strand, who had been confirmed to a federal judgeship.[4]

Since 2001, Williams has taught Federal Criminal Practice and other courses on criminal law and practice at the University of Iowa School of Law.[5]

History of the Seat

The seat Williams has been nominated for opened on October 1, 2017, with Judge Linda Reade’s move to senior status.  Williams applied to a screening committee formed by Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst in August 2017, and interviewed before the Committee in late September.  On October 12, 2017, Grassley and Ernst sent the names of four finalists, including Williams, to the White House.[6]  After interviews with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, Williams was formally nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa on February 15, 2018.

Legal Experience

After his clerkship, Williams’ first legal position was at the Department of Justice prosecuting narcotics cases.[7]  In this position, Williams reviewed death penalty drug cases and helped prosecute a former Deputy Attorney General.[8]  In 1991, Williams became a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney (SAUSA) in the Eastern District of Virginia.[9]  In 1992, Williams became a trial attorney at Lathrop & Gage LLC.[10]  Williams helped start the firm’s criminal representation section.[11]

In 1997, Williams was hired to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa.  There, Williams helped prosecute Sholom Rubashkin, the CEO of Agriprocessors, a kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant that had allegedly hired thousands of illegal aliens.[12]  Rubashkin’s prosecution drew particular concern due to the participation of Judge Linda Reade (who eventually presided over the case) in a highly controversial raid of the Agriprocessor plant.[13]  During his hearing, Williams clarified that he was not involved in the raid or the prosecutions of workers in the plant.[14]

Williams also participated in the death penalty conviction of Angela Johnson, the girlfriend of a drug kingpin who was convicted of the drug related murders of two federal witnesses and three others.[15]  Johnson’s death penalty sentence was ultimately overturned by Judge Mark Bennett and the Attorney General chose not to pursue the penalty again.[16]  However, in his recap of the case, Judge Bennett complimented Williams’ handling of the case, calling him “well-qualified, talented, and exceptionally professional.”[17]

Jurisprudence

Williams has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa since 2016.  In this role, Williams has presided over one jury trial and one bench trial.[18]  The jury trial involved damages to soybean and corn crops from hail, and the insurance company’s estimation of a lower loss.[19]  Williams ended up reducing the jury’s award of $1.5 million in punitive damages to $163,500.[20]

The bench trial that Williams presided over involved the abduction of three children by their mother and their removal to Turkey in violation of the Hague Convention.[21]  While Williams found that the removal of the children was unlawful, he did not order their return, noting that this would endanger the lives of one child, who needed a kidney transplant.[22]

In his two years on the bench, Williams has been reversed by a District Court judge on three occasions.  The rejections are outlined below:

United States v. Myers[23] – Presiding over the defendant’s arraignment, Williams ordered the defendant released before trial.  Judge Linda Reade reversed his decision and ordered the defendant detained.

United States v. Hayes[24] – Williams found that the government had charged two duplicitous counts of possessing a firearm as a prohibited person.  He recommended that the counts be merged.  Judge Leonard Strand agreed that the counts were duplicitous but found the correct remedy to be dismissal of one of the charges.

Cordes v. Berryhill[25] – In this social security action, Williams recommended that the ALJ’s decision denying social security benefits be affirmed.  Strand rejected this recommendation and reversed the ALJ recommendation.

Writings

As both an AUSA and an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law, Williams has written fairly extensively on a variety of legal topics.  Williams began his legal academic career early, authoring a law review note discussing limitations on the Miranda right to counsel.[26]  He went on to dissect and examine many statutory provisions[27] and common law and evidentiary standards.[28]  However, he was particularly prolific in discussing jury selection.

In one notable article, Williams advocates for amending the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to give attorneys the right to conduct voir dire (questioning) of potential jurors.[29]  Williams notes that the current rules allow a judge to solely conduct voir dire or dispense with voir dire entirely.[30]  Blocking attorney participation in the voir dire process, Williams notes, limits the effectiveness of jury selection tools such as peremptory strikes and is often less effective at picking an impartial jury.[31]

In another article, Williams outlines the history of peremptory strikes and suggests that the number of such strikes permitted “should be as small as possible.”[32]  Expanding on that theme in another article, Williams advocates a consistent method for exercising peremptory strikes across the federal judiciary.[33]  Specifically, Williams endorses the sequential-strike method, which requires both sides to voir dire blocks of jurors, with each side making determinations as to whether to strike a juror after a for-cause determination has been made.[34]

Overall Assessment

As noted previously, federal magistrate judges are fairly safe nominees for the federal bench.  While Williams has had a fairly short tenure as a magistrate, his long history as a federal prosecutor and fairly uncontroversial record on the bench makes him an uncontroversial nominee.

Furthermore, Williams has a powerful champion, namely, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.  As Chairman, Grassley has carefully guided Iowa judges through the nomination thicket, getting two confirmed during the otherwise unproductive 114th Congress.  As such, the odds look fairly good for a prompt confirmation for Williams.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., C.J. Williams: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 2.

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id. at 57.

[6] Press Release, Office of Sen. Chuck Grassley, Senators Ernst and Grassley Recommend Four Iowa Lawyers For Federal Judiciary Post (Oct. 17, 2017) (available at http://www.1380kcim.com/news/2017/senators-ernst-and-grassley-recommend-four-iowa-lawyers-for-federal-judiciary-post/).

[7] See Williams, supra n. 1 at 45.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] United States v. Rubashkin, No. 08-CR-1324-LRR (N.D. Iowa).

[13] Josh Nelson, UPDATE: Rubashkin Asks For New Trial After Judge’s Role in Raid is Detailed, Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, August 5, 2010, http://wcfcourier.com/news/local/article_f4f87fee-a0ae-11df-918f-001cc4c03286.html.

[14] Trish Mehaffey, Federal Magistrate Answers Questions From U.S. Senate Judiciary Regarding His Nomination as District Judge, Dubuque Gazette, March 20, 2018, http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/federal-magistrate-answers-questions-from-us-senate-judiciary-regarding-his-nomination-as-district-judge-20180321.

[15] United States v. Johnson, 01-CR-3046-MWB & 09-CV-3064-MWB (N.D. Iowa).

[16] Id. 

[17] Mark W. Bennett, Sudden Death: A Federal Trial Judge’s Reflections on the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases, 42 Hofstra L. Rev. 391 (Winter 2013).

[18] See Williams, supra n. 1 at 30.

[19] Bruhn Farms Joint Venture v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 2017 WL 2888585 (May 11, 2017).

[20] See id.

[21] Leonard v. Lentz, No. 17-CV-3037-CJW, 2017 WL 6887535 (N.D. Iowa Nov. 1, 2017); 2018 WL 459341 (N.D. Iowa Jan. 18, 2018).

[22] See id.

[23] 17-CR-20188-LRR (Apr. 26, 2017).

[24] 2017 WL 1955334 (May 11, 2017).

[25] 2017 WL 3951641 (Sept. 8, 2017).

[26] Charles J. Williams, Connecticut v. Barrett and the Limited Invocation of the Right to Counsel: A New Limitation on Fifth Amendment Miranda Protections, 73 Iowa L. Rev. 743 (March 1988).

[27] See, e.g., C.J. Williams, An Argument For Putting the Posse Comitatus Act to Rest, 85 Miss. L.J. 99 (2016); C.J. Williams, What is the Gist of the Mail Fraud Statute, 66 Okla. L. Rev. 287 (Winter 2014); Charles J. Williams, Towards a Comprehensive Health Care Anti-Kickback Statute, 64 UMKC L. Rev. 291 (Winter 1995).

[28] See, e.g., C.J. Williams, Fault and the Suicide Victim: When Third Parties Assume a Suicide Victim’s Duty of Self-Care, 76 Neb. L. Rev. 201 (1997). See also C.J. Williams and Dasha Ternavska, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Admissibility of “Other Fires” Evidence in Arson Cases, 48 Conn. L. Rev. 685 (Feb. 2016).

[29] C.J. Williams, To Tell You The Truth, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 24(A) Should Be Amended To Permit Attorneys To Conduct Voir Dire of Prospective Jurors, 67 S.C. L. Rev. 35 (Autumn 2015).

[30] See id. at 58.

[31] Id. at 60.

[32] C.J. Williams, On the Origin of Numbers: Where did the Number of Peremptory Strikes Come From and Why is Origin Important, 39 Am. J. Trial Advoc. 481, 515 (Spring 2016).

[33] C.J. Williams, Proposing a Peremptory Methodology for Exercising Peremptory Strikes, 54 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 277 (Winter 2017).

[34] Id. at 296-97.

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