Honorable Celeste F. Bremer '71
In a series of interviews with notable alumni about their experiences at Assumption, we recently caught up with 1971 graduate Honorable Celeste F. Bremer, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Iowa.
Q. What are you up to now?
In January 2015 I will celebrate my 30th year as a judge. I have been a U.S. Magistrate Judge since 1985. I serve the Southern District of Iowa, which covers from Council Bluffs to Davenport, everything south of Highway 30.
Q. How did you become a Chief Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Iowa?
I was appointed to the position of U.S. Magistrate Judge after nomination by a Merit Selection Panel. Then the finalists were interviewed by the District Judges and I was selected. Full-time Magistrate Judges serve 8-year terms, and then can have their terms renewed, after the Court receives public comment and reviews their work. I graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1974; I practiced law in Davenport as an Assistant Scott County Attorney, in private practice, and then as in-house counsel for Deere & Co. before I moved to Des Moines.
Q. What made you want to go into working in the legal system?
While I attended St. Ambrose College I majored in Sociology and Criminal Justice. I worked Pretrial Release at the Scott County Jail, and did an internship at the Davenport Police Department. I was interested in working in law enforcement, but one of the police captains urged me to go to law school. I thought that if I had a law degree I would have a better chance of becoming an FBI agent. I found that I liked trial work during my internship at the Scott County Attorneyâ€™s Office, and became a prosecutor.
Q. What is a typical day like for a Chief Magistrate Judge?
One of the interesting aspects of serving as a U.S. Magistrate Judge is that there is no typical day. I can try any civil case, with the consent of the parties, so some days I have jury trials in Council Bluffs, Des Moines, or Davenport. I also try cases at the prisons in Fort Madison, Mt. Pleasant, Mitchellville or Newton. I do case management in civil and criminal cases. I conduct settlement conferences and handle motions. So no two days are alike. When Iâ€™m on the criminal assignment, I see all defendants who are arrested, and decide whether they should stay in jail or be released on conditions.
Q. What do you enjoy most about being a U. S. Magistrate Judge?
Serving as a U.S. Magistrate Judge is interesting and challenging, and working in federal court allows me to see great lawyers and sometimes very complex cases. The three Magistrate Judges in our District rotate the assignment of serving as Chief Magistrate Judge every 7 years; this is my second term. The Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge has some administrative duties. I enjoy working with a variety of attorneys who raise interesting issues that cause me to think. I like seeing litigants and working to resolve their cases. I hope that everyone who gets arrested feels that they are treated fairly, even if they might not be happy with the outcome.
Q. What did it mean to you to be awarded the Christine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice?
I was very honored to have my work to improve access to justice and equality on the bench recognized by the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women with the Christine Wilson Medal. She was an Iowa Lawyer who served low-income Iowans and worked to improve fairness in the legal system. I hope my work inspires others to continue making the justice system open and available for everyone.
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor, left, with Class of 1971 Assumption graduate the Honorable Celeste F. Bremer.
Q. Please tell us about your work with the Infinity Project?
Since early in my legal career, I've tried to make sure people have access to justice. I was one of the founders of the Volunteer Lawyers Project for the Polk County Bar Association and Iowa State Bar. Also, early in my career I began applying for judgeships, and decided that I wanted a judicial career. I realized that Iowaâ€™s Merit Selection process could be improved, and was asked by the Iowa Supreme Court to chair a task force that made recommendations to increase the transparency of the process. I continue to train Iowa Judicial Nominating Commissions. Through the Infinity Project, I work to increase the number of women judges, particularly appellate judges.
In 130 years, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has only had two women: Judge Diana Murphy, appointed in 1994, and Judge Jane Kelly, appointed in 2013. The Infinity Project ensures qualified women applicants are in the pipeline and available for appointment by the President after nomination by a Senator; that the public is aware of the value of diversity on the bench for improvement of the delivery of justice; and that all attorneys interested in judicial service have an equal chance at being appointed.
Q. What are some of the things you learned at Assumption?
When I went to Assumption, it was co-institutional; the girls were on the one side, the boys on the other. We saw each other at lunch or in band or in advanced placement classes. It was transitioning to co-ed. At Assumption I learned to love reading and writing, and improved my ability to research. I worked on the student newspaper and yearbook. It prepared me for success in college, and to be a life-long learner. In addition to receiving a law degree, I have a Doctorate in Adult Education that I was awarded in 2002 from Drake University School of Education.
Q. How do you feel your time at Assumption has helped you in your career?
Assumption prepared me for law school, judicial career, and teaching because it gave me a solid foundation in writing and research. Attending Catholic grade school (Sacred Heart), high school, and college made me aware of social justice issues that I continue to face today.
Q: Looking back on your time at Assumption, what are some of the experiences that helped prepare you for what youâ€™re doing now?
At Assumption, a high level of work was expected from us, regardless of the subject
â€“ whether it was Honors English or PE. You were always expected to give your best effort, even if it was not necessarily in a subject, or talent, that you felt was your strong suit (for example, how in the heck did I ever perform on the uneven parallel bars? What were they thinking â€“ what was I thinking? Not sure, but I have that memory, and that accomplishment!).
Q: Who were some of your biggest influences during your time at Assumption?
In Band, Mr. Paarman worked to make us, as a group, one of the best marching bands, and took us to an international competition in Winnipeg. That was a great trip and learning experience. We also recorded an LP record, and I still have my copy â€“ we thought we were ready for prime time!
1969 Assumption Band
When he retired, Mr. Klaus pushed us individually, and required everyone to enter State competition â€“ even those (like me) who might not shine. That was truly a learning experience; I am grateful that he was more concerned about the individual studentâ€™s growth, rather than just getting honors for the school by only sending the â€œsure winners.â€
The Class of â€™71 has several lawyers, doctors, scientists, actors, and represents all walks of life. John Nahra was a state district court judge in the Seventh Judicial District, and is now retired and mediating cases; Judy Decker had a successful career in medical research and sales, and is now retired and living in northern California, and an expert in fly fishing. Others have stayed closer to the Quad Cities, but we all hold a warm spot in our hearts for AHS, and get together for reunions.
Q. What suggestions or advice do you have for our students who may want to pursue a career in law enforcement or the judicial system?
Any student who is interested in a law enforcement or legal career should take advantage of any internships, mock trial, or speech and debate programs they can find. Volunteer to work at HELP Legal Assistance, Habitat for Humanity or anywhere that will help you understand what is going on in your community, and improve your ability to relate to all types of people. Take classes to improve your research and writing skills.
Q. Any last words of encouragement for the Class of 2015?
It gets better. For me, high school was not particularly enjoyable, and it is in looking back that I can appreciate how my teachers and experiences prepared me for college and a great career. At the time, however, I was well and truly a nerd â€“ one of the few kids who came to school on Senior Skip Day, insecure, and wondering whether Iâ€™d succeed in college, or have a social life beyond Band. We were living in a time of turmoil â€“ the Vietnam War and looming draft, the Civil Rights movement, Kent State shootings, and much social change. AHS challenged us to think, and to make our way through chaotic times, with core values. Life does get much better, and AHS gives you the foundation to make great choices and have opportunities that you would not get without such a good support system.
To the Class of 2015:
Be open to those around you, who are willing to help both now and in the long term. Reach out and help others who need a hand, or just a kind word. Enjoy the challenges presented, and graduate ready to change the world, because we are expecting you to!