SIOUX FALLS — Former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is one of three names submitted to President Joe Biden for a soon-to-be vacant seat on the federal bench.
Biden will fill a U.S. District Court seat, as Judge Jeffrey Viken of Rapid City has announced his intention to move to senior status on Oct, 1, only hearing a select number of cases. The position is a lifetime appointment that requires Senate
Several sources close to the process confirmed that Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat who was South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives from June 2004-2010, is the recommended choice of the South Dakota Democratic Party to replace Viken.
Herseth Sandlin is a 1997 graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center. She served as a judicial law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Charles B. Kornmann, who is based in Aberdeen, and for Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District, based in Richmond, Va.
Under her maiden name Herseth, she briefly practiced law in Washington, D.C., and taught at Georgetown. But her eyes were mostly focused on public service, carrying on a family tradition of Democratic politics.
Her grandfather Ralph Herseth was governor from 1959-60, and her grandmother Lorna Herseth served as secretary of state from 1973-79. Her father Lars Herseth served eight years in both the South Dakota House of Representatives and the state Senate and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1986, losing a close race to Republican nominee George Mickelson, whose father also was governor.
Stephanie Herseth was named executive director of the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation as she eyed a run for Congress. She lost to Gov. Bill Janklow in 2002, but following his resignation after a fatal automobile crash, Herseth won a special election to fill the seat in June 2004, defeating state Sen. Larry Diedrich.
She was re-elected that fall and again in 2006 and 2008. But Herseth Sandlin, as she became known after marrying former Texas Rep. Max Sandlin in 2007, was defeated by then-state Rep. Kristi Noem in 2010.
Herseth Sandlin never again sought public office despite repeated entreaties from the state Democratic Party and her supporters.
Instead, she worked for a Washington, D.C., law firm, taught classes at South Dakota State University, and served as general counsel and vice president of corporate development for Raven Industries in Sioux Falls.
On Aug. 1, 2017, she began her duties as president of Augustana University, saying she was done with politics. The new position returned Herseth Sandlin to the spotlight, as she sought to have Augustana join the Summit League and compete in Division 1 athletics. The request was rejected by the league in 2020.
While it would seem Herseth Sandlin is an ideal choice for the bench, there could be sticking points. Her legal experience is thin, with no real work in the field for a decade. On Feb. 10, she was sworn into the federal bar, as was first reported by the Argus Leader.
South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Randy Seiler, a former U.S. attorney, sponsored her for the position. He declined to confirm the names of the people submitted to the White House.
“There’s a lot of interest in these positions,” Seiler said.
In addition, Biden, who served 35 years in the U.S. Senate and was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987-95, has pledged to make appointments that reflect American diversity.
On March 30, he nominated the first Muslim federal judge in U.S. history, the first Asian American Pacific Islander woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge for the District of Maryland.
“This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession,” Biden said in a statement. “Each is deeply qualified and prepared to deliver justice faithfully under our Constitution and impartially to the American people — and together they represent the broad diversity of background, experience, and perspective that makes our nation strong.”
Viken told the Rapid City Journal he would like to see a Native American receive strong consideration for the post.
Herseth Sandlin ruffled some feathers among liberal Democrats in South Dakota and members of the Obama administration when she voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. She also broke with most Democrats on cap-and-trade, the financial and auto industry bailouts and same-sex marriage.
That will be recalled by former aides to President Obama who are now in the Biden administration.
Tracey Zephier of Sturgis, the attorney general of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is another potential appointee to the bench.
“At this time I would prefer not to comment on the federal judicial nomination process for the upcoming vacancy in the Western Division of the District of South Dakota, other than to say that I am indeed interested in the position,” Zephier said.
Zephier has a strong resume, having served as executive director of the South Dakota Equal Justice Commission, which was created by the South Dakota Supreme Court. Zephier, known then as Tracey Fischer, was a law clerk for South Dakota Chief Justice Robert A. Miller in 2019-20.
The Sturgis native earned undergraduate degrees in business management and accounting from National University in Rapid City and received her law degree from Yale University in 1999.
She has worked in private business, as a banker and in economic development, and taught at the University of South Dakota School of Law and Oglala Lakota College. Zephier’s heritage reflects South Dakota, since her mother was Lakota Sioux while her father was of Norwegian ancestry.
The third name being submitted is Sarah Collins, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Rapid City. Collins, who has been with the Department of Justice for more than 10 years, and has served as the office’s senior litigation counsel since 2015.
Collins earned her undergraduate degree from Colorado State University and her law degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was a deputy district attorney, senior deputy DA and then chief deputy DA in Colorado before returning to South Dakota in 2010.
During her career, she has acted as lead counsel in over 160 trials before state and federal courts in a variety of cases including violent crimes in Indian Country, child internet exploitation, firearms offenses and white collar crimes, according to her resume.
Collins received the 2020 U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service in Indian Country for the prosecution of former Indian Health Services Dr. Stanley Weber. She also authored a nationwide curriculum on tribal and local law enforcement on topics of search and seizure.
Collins also served on the U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Board on Internet Crimes and was named to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime National Coordination Committee on the American Indian/Alaska Native Sexual Assault Response.
She grew up in Rapid City and now lives in Box Elder, but her family’s roots are on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Her mother was a tribal member, while her father, who was from Tennessee, was primarily of German ancestry.
Collins confirmed she is a candidate for the position but does not know how the process will play out.
“I have no idea where it’s headed,” she said.
Seiler told the Pioneer that the person named to the federal bench would need to live in West River. If named and approved, that apparently would require Herseth Sandlin to move from Sioux Falls.
U.S. attorney choice
The reported choice for U.S. attorney is Alison Ramsdell, who has led the Civil Rights Section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office since July 2016. Seiler, who became the U.S. attorney when Brendan Johnson, who held the post from 2009-15, stepped down to enter private practice on March 12, 2015.
In 2016, Seiler said Ramsdell was ideal for the newly created position.
“Alison Ramsdell brings an abundance of talent, energy, and compassion to her new position,” he said. “The protection of every citizen’s civil rights has historically been a priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but we are ramping up those efforts and Alison will play a significant role in enforcing those laws.”
Ramsdell received her undergraduate degree in international economics, Spanish and public relations, with a minor in business administration, from Valparaiso University in 2008, and law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law in 2011.
She then joined the Murphy, Goldammer & Prendergast law firm in Sioux Falls before serving as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Karen E. Schreier.
Ramsdell’s parents, Scott and Lani Ramsdell of Flandreau, have long been involved in Democratic politics in the state. Earlier this year, Seiler told the Rapid City Journal that politics will play a role in the people whose name he submits, including prior races for elective office.
Herseth Sandlin is the only one of the four people being considered who has sought public office.
Ramsdell did not return calls or an email seeking comment.
Ron A. Parsons, who was named to the post by President Donald Trump, was asked to step down along with dozens of other Trump appointees. He resigned effective Feb. 26.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney and Criminal Chief Dennis R. Holmes was named to fill the position until Biden nominates a candidate who is approved by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. attorney handles all federal cases as well as serious crimes committed by adults. The U.S. attorney serves until they are fired or asked to resign.
Seiler said he consulted with former Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, former U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, Drey Samuelson, Tim Johnson’s longtime chief of staff, along with other prominent South Dakota Democrats, including members of the state central committee.
Seiler said interested candidates submit a letter detailing their qualifications as well as a resume.
“Like any job,” he said.
In years’ past, when a Democratic president like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama was in office, they sought the counsel of Democratic senators from South Dakota.
Daschle, who served three terms in the Senate and was the Democratic leader for six years, was especially influential. When Obama took office in 2009, he wanted to curry favor with Sen. Tim Johnson, who was in his third term and was respected in the Senate.
Daschle, who represented South Dakota in Congress for 26 years, said he has been in contact with the Biden administration. Daschle and Biden served together in the Senate for 18 years.
“I have made about two dozen recommendations to the Biden administration for about that many positions, both foreign and domestic,” Daschle said. “In almost all of the cases, no decision has been made. Since I don’t have their approval to make my recommendations public, I will probably have to pass on names. I know that the Biden administration has received many thousands of applications for federal positions. I can only imagine how many more thousands of recommendations they have received.”
It’s a task he has performed before.
“I made a number of similar recommendations during the Clinton years. But as the Senate Democratic leader, I think it is fair to say that they got a lot more attention,” Daschle said. “I made recommendations for South Dakota agricultural positions and they were all accepted. I also recommended Larry Piersol, Chuck Kornman and Karen Schrier for federal judgeships.”
All five federal judges in South Dakota were appointed by Democratic presidents.
Of course, Democratic politicians have more influence during Democratic administrations, he said. Daschle was elected to the Senate in 1986 when Republican Ronald Reagan was completing his second term. He was in the Senate during President George H. W. Bush’s presidency and the first term of his son, President George W. Bush.
“I don’t recall whether I made any recommendations during the Bush years, but if I did they were pretty rare,” Daschle said.
Biden also will name a U.S. Marshal. The post is currently held by Daniel C. Mosteller, the former superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol. He retired from that post in 2010 after 27 years with the patrol.
Mosteller then worked as the law enforcement coordinator for the U.S attorney’s office in South Dakota, including a stretch where he worked for Seiler.
The marshal oversees deputies across the state. While the position usually changes when a new president takes office, that is not always the case. The nominee must be approved by the U.S. Senate.
In addition, Biden will select a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development state director, a Farm Service Agency state executive director and name five members to the South Dakota Farm Service Agency State Committee. These posts do not require Senate approval.
The names of people being considered for these posts were not confirmed by sources who did know the candidates for the federal Jude post and U.S. attorney.
Julie Gross, who was named by Trump to lead the USDA Rural Development office, resigned on Jan. 20 as Trump left office.
Hally Witte, who was the associate enterprise director for the agency, has served as the acting state director since that date.
USDA Rural Development provides financial and technical assistance to support infrastructure improvements; business development, housing, community facilities such as schools, public safety, and health care facilities, and high-speed internet access in rural areas, according to its website.
In 2020, the programs invested $430.2 million in rural South Dakota communities, according to the agency.
Jamie White is the acting executive director of the South Dakota State Farm Service Agency. White, who also is the executive officer, assumed the post in November after Paul Shubeck died. Shubeck was named to the post by President Donald Trump in 2017.
The Farm Service Agency State Committee in South Dakota reviews state and county operations by making decisions on how programs are applied on a statewide basis. Appeals of County Committee decisions are heard at the state committee level.
The South Dakota Farm Service Agency State Committee members are Mark Gross, who serves as chairman, Tiffani Robertson, Gwen Kitzan, Bill Simonson and Kelsey Ducheneaux. Those also are presidential appointees.
Agency staffers and a USDA spokesman declined to disclose salaries, budgets and the number of employees working in South Dakota despite repeated attempts to obtain this public information.
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