Appeals court pick, former ethanol attorney, defends record

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, August 24, 2018

Jonathan Kobes, a former biofuels industry lawyer and an aide to Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), is facing questions about his lack of courtroom experience in his bid to become a federal judge.

President Trump in June nominated Kobes to serve on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate Judiciary Committee held his confirmation hearing yesterday.

If confirmed, Kobes would likely occasionally sit on three-judge panels hearing environmental law cases. Because the Supreme Court takes up so few cases each year, circuit court opinions are often the last word on many legal issues.

Kobes was a CIA attorney for a year until he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Dakota in 2003. He spent two years there before joining a private firm in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Between 2008 and 2014, he made the rounds among biofuel and agricultural companies.

Kobes worked as an in-house counsel for ethanol company Poet LLC for four years between 2008 and 2012, during which time he also served as a special litigation counsel for biofuel trade group Growth Energy.

After Poet, Kobes moved to DuPont Pioneer, where he was a senior regulatory counsel for a year. He then worked for a year at Raven Industries, a company that makes precision agricultural products.

In 2014, Kobes joined Rounds’ office, where he has served in several positions. He’s currently the South Dakota senator’s general counsel.

But although his work history contains a variety of jobs, it doesn’t include much time in the courtroom, a point that Democratic senators and progressives have latched onto in opposing his nomination for a lifetime judicial appointment.

“He has no legal scholarship, authored no law review articles, nor made any public pronouncements on legal issues,” the progressive group Alliance for Justice said.

Kobes acknowledged at his hearing yesterday that although he’s been practicing law for about 18 years, he’s participated in only six trials.

“You would agree that a relatively small proportion of your law practice has involved litigation,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.

Kobes responded: “I think that’s fair.”

But the nominee said that he’s had other types of work experiences that would help him as a judge, including representing the interests of “tens of thousands of farmers across the Midwest.” He said he has advised boards of directors on complying with federal regulations and made decisions that affect “real people.”

Kobes argued that his experience has given him “a real practical respect for the separation of powers.”

Kobes also faced some tough questions over an article published last year by a Dutch Protestant newspaper in which he made remarks about immigrants changing the cultures of historically white Protestant areas.