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Starting a second career
Sioux City federal judge Bennett retiring from bench to teach full time

SIOUX CITY -- Most of us would count ourselves fortunate to have a career that we enjoy and are successful in.

Mark W. Bennett has done just that: a law career of more than 40 years, the past 24 as a U.S. District Court judge in Sioux City.

Now he's ready to start over with a second career, one he anticipates liking as much as the first.

Bennett will retire from the federal bench March 1 and move into a full-time faculty position at his alma mater as the director of the Institute for Justice Reform & Innovation at Drake University Law School in Des Moines. He'll teach a few classes as well.

The move wasn't exactly planned, but Bennett said he never envisioned sitting as a judge forever.

"I did feel I had another career in me," he said. "I just didn't know what it looked like."

Bennett, 68, said that since 1981 he's served as an adjunct, teaching at least one law school class each year at Drake, the University of Iowa, the University of Nebraska and in Hawaii. When Drake officials approached him about leading the new institute, it was a surprise.

But Bennett, who assumed senior status in June 2015, said most senior judges stay on the bench until their health forces them to quit or they die.

He didn't want to reach that point.

"I've always been interested in teaching, and I thought it would be a good time to leave because our court (in the Northern District of Iowa) is in phenomenal shape," he said.

A Milwaukee native, Bennett received his law degree from Drake in 1975. After 16 years in private practice, he was appointed to be a U.S. magistrate judge in Des Moines in 1991. President Bill Clinton appointed him in August 1994 as the U.S. District Court judge in Sioux City.

For the past 24 years, Bennett has presided over hundreds of criminal and civil cases in courtrooms in Sioux City and Cedar Rapids. Notorious for working long hours -- he might file decisions late at night, early in the morning or on weekends -- Bennett once said he felt it was important that if taxpayers were paying his salary, they get their money's worth.

His rulings were seldom boring. They might contain quotes from Shakespeare. A ruling involving a dog named Snickers opened with a history of the popular candy bar. He detailed a clerk's fact-finding mission at a Sioux City adult novelty store in a ruling involving a lawsuit filed by another adult store against the City of Sioux City. And, if he felt it necessary, he'd give attorneys or parties involved in court actions a good tongue-lashing in his writings.

"I'm sure some are glad to see me go. Others are excited for me," Bennett said with a chuckle and a grin.

Turning serious, Bennett said he has sentenced more than 4,000 people to federal prison, the toughest duty he faced on the bench.

"It takes a lot out of you to do that," he said. "The decisions you make impact so many people's lives."

Now he looks to make an impact on future lawyers attending law school.

Bennett looks forward to leading the Institute for Justice Reform & Innovation's mission of research, scholarship and developing policies that could lead to changes in the civil and criminal justice systems. He'll teach classes in appellate advocacy, justice innovation and reform, and the differences in practicing in state and federal court.

He's excited to interact with law school students and pass on some of the knowledge he's gained during his own career.

"The number one thing is that it's a great honor and privilege to have a client ask you to represent them, and you have an obligation to work hard and give that client the best representation you're capable of," Bennett said.

Bennett plans to do some part-time legal work such as mediation and assisting other lawyers in civil and criminal cases. Just don't expect him to miss sitting on the bench.

"I'm not going to miss judging even though I've enjoyed every day of it, but I am going to miss the wonderful people I've worked with," he said. "Sioux City has been very good to me and my family. People at the courthouse have been wonderful to work with.

"It's been an incredible job. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do it for 24 years. It's a privilege to serve the public as a federal court judge."

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Kruse Financial Group staff are shown at the firm's office in Dakota Dunes. From left: Margaret Wood, Joe Kruse, Tyler Kruse, Jason Rasmussen and Kristin Bestwick. Kruse Financial Group has donated to the Journal's Goodfellows charity. 

Voters to visit polls in five Northwest Iowa school districts

Voters in at least five Northwest Iowa school districts head to the polls Tuesday to determine four bond issues and one physical plant levy that seek to fund future brick-and-mortar efforts.

SERGEANT BLUFF-LUTON: Sergeant Bluff-Luton leads this busy day in terms of amount, as voters are asked to approve a $62-million bond issue to fuel construction, the bulk of which will realize the erection of a $49 million SB-L High School and an adjacent $7 million athletic complex. Recent measures in the district failed in 2016 and 2015.

District leaders have pointed out that SB-L buildings are at near capacity for enrollment, a figure that has jumped from 1,373 students in 2014-15 to 1,438 this academic year.

Information released on the bond measure details that the property tax levy for the school district is currently $10.36 per $100,000 of assessed valuation, lowest in a decade. That figure would rise to $14.17 per $100,000 valuation if the measure finds 60 percent approval among voters.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Students move between classes in August at OABCIG High School in Ida Grove, Iowa. District voters will determine the fate of a $15.9 million bond issue on Tuesday.

OABCIG: Voters in the communities of Odebolt, Arthur, Battle Creek and Ida Grove will determine a $15.9 million bond issue, a revised effort from a 2017 bond measure asking that failed to reach the 50-percent approval mark. A 60 percent "super majority" is needed for approval.

Proponents of the plan seek to build a 585-seat performance arts auditorium, while adding a new choir room, band room, locker-room area, wrestling room, and centralized district and high school office. Up to 17 classrooms in Ida Grove and Odebolt will also be renovated under this plan, under state law.

The annual property tax asking increased, if approved, for a home valued at $100,000 comes to $37.57.

STORM LAKE: Voters in the Storm Lake Community School District will be asked to decide the fate of a $29 million bond issue, one that will pave the way for construction of a new Early Childhood Education Center on the northwest section of the Buena Vista County seat.


The proposal to build a new early childhood center in the Storm Lake (Iowa) School District goes before voters Tuesday. The above is an artist's rendering.

Rising enrollment drives the issue in Storm Lake, where teachers and administrators face a space crunch in a district whose enrollment has surged by 22 percent in the past eight years. The current Storm Lake Elementary School, a 10-year-old building, is nearly 150 students over capacity.

As a short-term solution, the district has used portable classrooms and has converted shared spaces in both the elementary and middle school into classroom space.

If the bond issue passes in Storm Lake, district leaders are poised to address their capacity needs by constructing a new Early Childhood Center in two phases, the first of which would allow space for the kindergarten class. The second phase would offer room for Early Childhood programming.

Resource rooms, a gymnasium and a teacher planning center are also listed as features.

If passed, the Storm Lake measure would result in an estimated tax impact of $148.15 on every $100,000 of assessed property value per year.

RIVER VALLEY: River Valley Community School District patrons are asked Tuesday to again consider passing the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, a measure that failed last fall. This effort requires one vote beyond the 50-percent threshold for passage.

The voter-approved levy generates funds a district can tap for infrastructure and equipment repairs, purchases and improvements.

The PPEL will allow the district to collect nearly $191,000 in additional revenue each year for the next decade. The measure will not raise local property tax rates beyond their 2018-19 levels.

Funds would be used for new buses with seat belts and to purchase a new camera security system and a door-lock control device to allow administrators to lock down buildings via mobile device.

SMART boards, new computers and science lab equipment to allow for hands-on lab experiences would also be added to the district's tool box if the PPEL measure finds passage Tuesday.

AKRON-WESTFIELD: Akron-Westfield voters will decided for the third time how to proceed on building upgrades. The $6.8 million bond referendum would finance construction of a wing for industrial technology courses, a wellness and education site, substantial upgrading of the heating-and-cooling system, sciences classrooms and modernized security systems at the K-12 building in Akron.

The owner of a home with $100,000 assessed valuation would pay $139 more in property taxes per year under this plan.

Two similar bond issues at Akron-Westfield, in 2015 and 2016, failed to reach the 60-percent approval mark.