SIOUX CENTER—A Sioux Center native had a weekend to remember.
Two days before Jonathan Kobes’ 45th birthday Sunday, Aug. 25, a ceremony was held Friday, Aug. 23, in his honor at the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls, SD.
The hourlong investiture was the formal swearing in of Kobes as U.S. Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
“To be named a federal judge is overwhelming, it’s surreal,” Kobes said. “It’s a great honor too. Even now, after having been in this position since December, I still have mixed feelings of shock and joy.”
The Sioux Falls lawyer, the son of Wayne and the late Helen Kobes of Sioux Center, was nominated by President Donald Trump in June 2018 to serve on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, winning Senate confirmation Dec. 11, 2018.
Kobes was the first federal judicial nominee ever confirmed by a tiebreaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence. Kobes received his judicial commission Dec. 12, 2018, and has been serving since as one of 11 active judges for the Eighth Circuit, which handle federal appeals from district courts in seven states in the Midwest — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
“I’m thankful for the vice president,” Kobe said. “Anyone who goes through this entire process, I think to varying degrees, will say it’s not a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, it’s a political process … For me it was nerve racking.”
‘A huge honor’
Kobes replaces Judge Roger Wollman, who served on the Eighth Circuit since being appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Kobes, a Harvard Law School graduate, was a clerk for Wollman after earning his law degree.
Kobes said he never dreamed he’d replace his mentor, who’s been on the bench 34 years.
“It’s a huge honor and a big challenge,” Judge Wollman is highly respected. The opinions he writes are high quality. It’s an honor to have the seat he had for so many years, but it’s a challenge too because I know I’m going to be held to that standard, and it’s not a low bar.”
With the judges spread out across seven states, Kobes is thankful judge Wollman will remain in Sioux Falls, keeping a semiactive role as a senior judge and a mentor for Kobes in his new place on the bench.
Kobes has temporary chambers in the Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Sioux Falls while work is being completed on a permanent space. He also has offices in St. Paul, MN, and St. Louis. About eight weeks each year he’s gone for a week at a time to another office to hear cases.
“There’s a learning curve in any job. I’m finding that here,” he said. “We have difficult cases. Death penalty appeals to every day run-of-the-mill cases, but I try to make sure every case, even the little ones, are important. It’s the enormity of the responsibility that strikes me and keeps me focused.”
Kobes is a 1996 Dordt College graduate, who previously served as the general counsel to U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota since Rounds won his seat in 2014. Before that, Kobes was a general counsel to Poet and Raven Industries.
Born and raised in Sioux Center, Kobes moved with this family to Florida during his last two years of high school as Kobe’s father, retired Dordt professor Wayne Kobes, pursued Ph.D. work.
“Because I had been away, I didn’t have that desire to get out because I had already been out,” Kobes said on why he chose to attend Dordt. “My dad was on faculty and I loved it as long as I could remember. I thought I’d get the academics with a Christian perspective so it was a simple choice. I’m not even sure I applied elsewhere to be honest.”
Kobes always had an interest in law.
“I grew up loving politics, but I actually took a year off after Dordt because I wasn’t sure law school was right for me,” he said. “In that time I got married and worked in investments and realized that law school was something I wanted to do.”
“Studying law is intellectually very rigorous,” he continued. “There are difficult issues and I find it challenging. Plus, studying law opens so many doors. Those with a law degree could be bankers, processors, defense lawyers, professors. Law school opens up a lot of different career opportunities. I never really knew for sure what I wanted to do so it was a good way to move forward being challenged.”
God led the rest of the way, Kobes said, highlighting the blessing he received in being offered to clerk for an appeals court after law school.
“When you get that kind of offer, it’s a big deal and you take it,” Kobes said, noting this allowed his family to come back to the Midwest where they could be closer to extended family. “I still consider myself to be a Midwesterner. I like the down-to-earth people I grew up with, not that they’re perfect, but they’re good, trustworthy people. Sioux Center has changed, I think, since I moved out but it still has some of those characteristics. I’ve worked in Washington D.C., lived in Boston, but I appreciate where I’m from and the people I grew up with.”
His faith-based education from grade school through his undergraduate degree still impacts Kobes today.
“In treating every case as important, all judges are expected to do that, but for me part of the reason I commit to doing that is my Christian upbringing and faith,” he said. “In that way it’s a very fulfilling job too because there are times we all have where you’re working and getting a little down in whatever it is you’re doing and feeling you don’t have a purpose. This job doesn’t let you get that way. Every day you’re reminded of the purpose in what you’re doing. I like that. I think that’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job.”
“I can’t decide cases based on faith,” he continued. “I still have to look at the law and look at the Constitution and be honest, even if it conflicts with what I might prefer. It’s also part of the challenge.”
Kobes is unsure how long he’ll be a federal judge.
“I’m honestly focusing one day at a time and it’s going fast already,” he said. “I can imagine wanting to do this for a long time, but we’ll see if I remain healthy and what my wife says about that in 20-some years. Some judges stay in active role for years, some retire as soon as they’re eligible, some take senior status to open up a seat for a new judge but to be able to continue working. I’m not sure yet. I’m honored to be in this position no matter how long it is.”