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Sioux City federal judge Bennett retiring from bench to teach full time
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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."

Copyright 2018 The Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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