A decorated World War II veteran, O’Brien had served six years as the top federal prosecutor in northern Iowa after a 1961 appointment by President John F. Kennedy.
“His passion was really for treating everybody incredibly fairly no matter what their lot in life was.
He was just someone of tremendous grace and compassion, integrity, just an amazing human being,” said Judge Mark Bennett, U.S. District Court, and Northern District of Iowa.
“He’ll be known for his extraordinary public service and he was one of the kindest, most gracious human beings I’ve ever met.”
A native of Iowa, O’Brien served and enlisted in the US Army as an Air Corps Lieutenant from 1942 to 1945 before graduating from Creighton University Law School with his J.D. degree in 1948.
On the recommendation of U.S. Senator Edward Zorinsky, O’Brien was nominated by President Jimmy Carter on September 27, 1978, to a seat vacated by William Hanson as Hanson went on senior status to both the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa.
O’Brien was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 4, 1978, and received commission on the following day October 5, 1978. O’Brien served as the chief judge for the Northern District of Iowa from 1985 to 1992 before assuming senior status on December 30, 1992.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and five air medals. In 1987, O’Brien had sided with a class of juvenile offenders by ruling that Iowa authorities were violating federal law by continuing to jail too many juveniles in adult jails.
He ordered the state to draw up plans to reduce the rate and comply with the Juvenile Justice Act, which led to juvenile jails being built around the state that still house youthful offenders today.
O’Brien’s wife of 61 years, Ruth, died in 2011. He’s survived by four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“He worked tirelessly so that prisoners were treated humanely and fairly, and considered his work on behalf of prisoners his greatest accomplishment,” the court’s statement said.
Siding with inmates who had filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the conditions as unconstitutional, O’Brien found inadequate mental health treatment that caused all inmates to suffer from out-of-control behavior and extraordinarily long lockup sentences for misbehaving inmates that deprived them exercise during winter months.
The ruling angered the Iowa Department of Corrections and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who blasted O’Brien as a liberal who cared more about inmates than the public.
His 37-year career as a federal judge included many high-profile cases. One of O’Brien’s most significant rulings came in 1997, when he declared the conditions at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison to be shameful.
After the war he finished college, earned a law degree from Creighton University and returned to Sioux City to practice. He soon served as a local prosecutor and judge and was active in Democratic Party politics.