July/August 2015

In Memoriam: Judge Donald O’Brien

The Honorable Donald E. O’Brien, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Iowa, died on August 18, 2015.

Donald O’Brien was born in Marcus, Iowa on September 30, 1923. After graduating from Sioux City Trinity High School in 1941, he began at Trinity College in Sioux City. He interrupted his education in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. From 1943-1945 he flew 30 missions over Europe as a B-17 bombardier with the Eighth Air Force. He attained the rank of first lieutenant and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and five Air Medals.

After the war, O’Brien attended Trinity College for a semester and then switched to Creighton University in Omaha where he obtained his law degree in 1948. He entered private practice in Sioux City in 1948, and served as part-time assistant Sioux City prosecutor from 1949 - 1953. He reentered private practice fulltime in 1954, and was elected to serve as county attorney for Woodbury County, Iowa, from 1955- 1958. In 1959, he served as a municipal court judge for Sioux City for a year before returning to his law practice.

President Kennedy appointed O’Brien U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa in 1961 and President Johnson reappointed him in 1965. He resigned in 1967 and resumed private practice for the next 10 years. From 1977-1978 he served as special counsel for a House of Representatives Committee in Washington D.C.

Democrats nominated O’Brien for congress in 1958 and 1960 but he lost both elections. He played active roles in the 1964, 1972, and 1976 presidential campaigns, and was Democratic National Committeeman for Iowa from 1975-1977.

In 1978, President Carter appointed him as U.S. District Judge for the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa. In 1990, congress created a judgeship for the Southern District of Iowa (filled by Judge Ronald Longstaff in 1991) which relieved Judge O’Brien of his duties in that District. He presided over a number of important trials and served as Chief Judge of the Northern District of Iowa from 1985 - 1992.

Judge O’Brien took senior status on December 30, 1992, and continued to work a reduced caseload for over 22 more years until his death at the age of 91.