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Iowa's Grassley is first nonlawyer to head Senate Judiciary Committee

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a farmer and not a lawyer, is expected to win Judiciary Committee chairmanship

Sen. Charles E. Grassley is fond of calling himself "a pig farmer from Iowa," but both friends and political opponents don't buy the country rube image.

The 81-year-old Republican is expected Thursday to become the first nonlawyer to be elected chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in its 198-year history.

Though he may occasionally crank up his old John Deere tractor when visiting his farm in New Hartford during Senate breaks, Grassley is better known in Washington for expertly grilling lawyers and judges during 34 years of committee hearings.

"People have a tendency to underestimate Chuck Grassley," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "Yes, he's a farmer, but he was also working on a PhD when he was elected to office instead."

If there is a Supreme Court vacancy in the next two years, it will be this soybean farmer — he currently farms crops, not pigs, on his 750 acres — as much as anyone else who decides whether President Obama's nominee is confirmed.

Whether Obama can continue to get his lower-court nominees confirmed to the federal bench will also be in Grassley's hands.

Grassley said in a statement this week that he intended to use his new post to address border security, tackle issues of national security and civil liberties raised by revelations of National Security Agency surveillance, and reduce regulatory burdens on business.

Grassley is generally seen by Republicans and Democrats as a genuine, often humble, honest and unusually hardworking legislator.

Unlike senators who spend much of their time raising money or giving out-of-town speeches, Grassley is "the closest to a full-time legislator in the Senate," former Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Leach said. "A lot of people are going to be watching this because of the precedent of a nonlawyer, but there are very few people who will match him because of his legislative acumen. And he is one of the most trusted senators."

At the same time, he has come under intense criticism from Democrats and some commentators for attempting to obstruct votes on many of Obama's judicial nominees, particularly in the last year after Democrats changed filibuster rules to get more judges through.

Drawing particular attention was his assertion that three longtime vacancies on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals need not be filled because the court's workload was insufficient, even though he voted to give the same court a full complement of judges nominated by Republican President George W. Bush.

"Although Sen. Grassley has supported some excellent additions to the federal bench in Iowa, he's also led the unprecedented obstruction of President Obama's judicial nominees," said Michelle Schwartz of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal legal lobbying group. "He has pushed his caucus to delay votes and waste floor time on every judicial nominee this year, even those later confirmed unanimously."

But even liberals such as Glenn Sugameli, who follows judicial nominations for the Defenders of Wildlife environmental group, believe that Grassley has the experience to run the committee.

"The real issue is whether he will be willing to take action that is necessary to allow [Obama] nominees to have hearings," Sugameli said.

So far Grassley has sounded a conciliatory note, telling Iowa Public Radio this week that Obama has gotten most of his judicial nominees through the Senate and "I have no reason to believe that the future is any different."

Grassley "has signaled that he wants to be fair and evenhanded, and I don't doubt that that's what he really wants," said Barbara Trish, chair of the political science department at Grinnell College in Iowa. "I think it remains to be seen how that's really manifest when he is faced with real decisions and feels the pressure of his party's leadership."

Grassley's record in the Senate is one of political independence. He took on President Reagan, a conservative hero, over defense spending and other issues. He has attacked waste and malfeasance under Democratic and Republican presidents, particularly at the FBI and the Justice Department.

He is the patron saint of federal whistle-blowers, who he says "are often treated like skunks at a picnic." He has gone after church ministers who live high on the hog while collecting tax breaks, and attacked big corporate bonuses for hospital chief executives.

"He's an intriguing political figure," Trish said. "He combines a folksy charm with political savvy, and he certainly has had a long successful political career in Iowa. He's almost iconic. He certainly has the potential to have a profound impact on the country."

Despite his age, Grassley has been an enthusiastic adapter of social media. His Twitter account is as blunt and folksy as he is.

Recent entries are about University of Northern Iowa sporting events, a service at his family church near his hometown and a comparison of Obama to the imperious King George III of England for contemplating changing immigration rules without legislation.

He achieved online notoriety two years ago for reporting matter of factly that he had hit a deer near his farm. "Assume deer dead," he wrote.

Darlene Saathoff, who lives across the street from Grassley and has known him for many years, is one of the senator's fans in Iowa, where residents have often reelected him with 70% of the vote.

She said she had often seen Grassley working in his yard, picking up littered soda cans, and recalled that Grassley's mother, Ruth, used to reupholster furniture on the family farm to earn extra cash. "He came up the hard way, I'll tell you that. He worked himself up to what he is today."

She said she was offended when Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, running this year for the state's second Senate seat, denigrated Grassley to a group of lawyers, telling them that if Republicans won the Senate "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" would be heading the Judiciary Committee. The remark backfired with many voters.

"Somebody made a remark that he didn't go to lawyer school," Saathoff said. "But he knows as much about law as any lawyer I know. He's a very intelligent man."

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Twitter: @timphelpsLAT

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