- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2021

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Life is changing for two Bismarck-area judges, with a state judge retiring after 38 years on the bench and a federal judge moving into senior status that will allow him a lighter workload if he chooses.

South Central District Judge Thomas Schneider stepped down at the end of last month. He’s been a judge since 1982. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland has accepted senior status that gives federal judges the opportunity to work as much or as little as preferred. He plans to help with a backlogged federal docket for a time but also is eyeing more relaxation time when warmer weather comes.

Schneider has handled cases involving everything from traffic tickets and red light violations to medical malpractice and murder. Defendants have reacted to his sentences with letters of thanks, expressions of gratitude made in person, and at times death threats.

It’s been “a pretty rewarding career,” Schneider said — one that’s lasted long enough that three generations of some families have come through his courtroom.

“I said when I start seeing the fourth generation it’s time to retire,” he said.

Schneider’s time on the bench started in 1982 when he became municipal judge in Mandan. He later added judicial referee duties, and in 1986 he became a judge for Morton, Grant and Sioux counties. He was elected to his current job as South Central District judge in 1994. He’s been re-elected every six years since. He’s based in Mandan but also hears cases in Bismarck, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

As a county judge he presided over a case regarding the homeschooling of children. The issue was new to North Dakota at the time, and the courtroom was packed every day during the weeklong trial.

“It was a question of parental rights, religious freedom, the state’s authority,” Schneider said. “Over the years the parties did come together to set rules and regulations regarding homeschooling.”

A murder case also stands out in his memory, though out of respect he’s careful not to mention names connected to it. Some of the people involved are still around, he said, and he doesn’t want to risk reviving bad memories for them.

He shows a similar respect to everyone in his courtroom, said Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer, who has tried cases in front of Schneider since 2000.

“He doesn’t talk down to people,” Lawyer said. “He’ll tell them what they need to hear, but he’s never condescending.”

A judge’s job can be stressful, especially in high-profile cases, but it’s also rewarding, Schneider said. One day after a number of initial appearances were completed, one woman remained in the courtroom. Schneider had previously ordered her to undergo substance abuse treatment. She was successful, and she had come to thank him.

“She said she probably would never have gone if somebody didn’t force her to go,” he said.

Other defendants were less gracious. Schneider has had his life threatened more than once.

“You talk to the sheriff’s department and ask them to keep an eye out for a certain individual,” he said.

A judge’s career is “quite a learning situation,” Schneider said. Judges have to be fair to whomever is in front of them, which at times means simply listening to the evidence and putting aside the personalities in the courtroom. He’s enjoyed seeing the various approaches attorneys have used in cases.

“I could always tell when somebody just went to some sort of trial seminar,” he said. “Here comes something new.”

Attorneys have changed over the years too, with fewer actively seeking jury trials and more of them arguing among themselves in the courtroom.

“It seems like certain attorneys just have a conflict with each other,” he said.

As Schneider gained experience on the bench, he could more easily read defendants based on how they reacted to a sentence.

“You can tell who’s been through the system a few times,” he said. “You can tell who’s really sincere and who’s just telling you what you want to hear.”

Schneider in retirement plans to travel with his wife, Rita. He’s also learning more languages in an effort to more effectively communicate when the two visit countries in Europe.

Overall, for a career that “just kind of evolved,” Schneider said, “it’s been pretty rewarding.”

The Morton County Commission voted unanimously to name Courtroom 305 in the courthouse in honor of Schneider.

“Judge Schneider was a staple to the North Dakota judiciary,” Commissioner Andy Zachmeier said. “We greatly appreciate his many years of service, as well as his professional demeanor in working with Morton County staff, myself and the citizens of Morton County. He has done an amazing job and we will truly miss him.”

Hovland was in private practice from 1983 until becoming a federal judge in Bismarck in 2002. Like Schneider, he deals with a variety of cases, but in recent years much of his time has been spent handling drug cases, a product of increased traffic spurred by the state’s recent oil boom.

He estimates he’s sentenced more than 100 dealers in the last year — many from the Detroit and Milwaukee areas — for selling drugs in North Dakota cities including Bismarck, Minot and New Town.

“Oxycodone 30 milligram pills they bring in in batches of thousands,” he said. “They sell them for $75-plus per pill on the streets, get rid of them in three or four days in Bismarck or Minot, get back on the train and reload.”

There’s a pattern among the defendants he’s sentenced, with many of them coming from lives “plagued by violence and addiction,” Hovland said. He’s seen some father/son duos come through his courtroom, and he’s tried cases in which dealers were accused of selling drugs that caused overdoses and death. The effects are far-reaching, he said, because young people from any walk of life can fall victim.

“When they go to trial they’re just sad cases from many perspectives,” he said.

Hovland presided over two Jamaican lottery scam trials in which defendants were handed lengthy prison sentences. It was an interesting case but heartbreaking because of the number of elderly people who testified about losing thousands of dollars, he said.

His ruling on a North Dakota law prohibiting abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected drew emails on the same day it was issued.

“As soon as that order was docketed and filed, within an hour I started receiving literally hundreds of pretty scathing emails,” he said. “Hardly any from North Dakota residents.”

The biggest changes Hovland has seen deal with entry into the digital age. In 1980, files were made up of stacks of paper, and legal secretaries used Wite-Out. Today, the digital footprint created by a person’s cellphone or computer has become an important investigative item. It can become a source of evidence in drug cases and is especially useful in the prosecution of internet crimes such as child pornography and human trafficking.

“There’s very little that’s erased from a cellphone,” Hovland said. “Delete means nothing. It’s all recoverable.”

The practice of law in western North Dakota has changed as much as technology. It’s “much more friendly and less combative than it is elsewhere in the country,” Hovland said. Some attorneys — most of them from outside North Dakota — use harsh tactics and a rough demeanor because they were taught that way and haven’t developed relationships with others in the field. It might work in some places, but “it doesn’t in my courtroom,” Hovland said.

“You can be an effective lawyer without being abrasive and argumentative all the time,” he said. “Most lawyering I see in federal court, civil and criminal cases, is really excellent.”

Lawyers see much the same in Hovland, said former prosecutor and now U.S. Magistrate Clare Hochhalter. He tried cases in front of Hovland for 30-plus years and said he never saw him lose his temper.

“He would get angry, I think, but it would be in the context of a child victim, for example,” Hochhalter said. “You can tell children mean a lot to him.”

Hochhalter was a prosecutor when Hovland was “the busiest judge in the country” as the only judge in the district when criminal activity increased in the oil patch.

“There was an overwhelming amount of work. Everybody was stressed,” Hochhalter said. “He never appears stressed.”

Hovland was the only federal judge in North Dakota from October 2017 to November 2019. North Dakota was the only district in the nation with only one judge and no senior judges. Federal judges from other states presided over more than 500 North Dakota cases, which helped keep the backlog at bay.

Since then, Hovland and Judges Peter Welte and Daniel Traynor have started to get caught up. Hovland is eyeing some down time with family at a lake cabin in Minnesota — starting next summer — but he’s not in a hurry to end his time on the bench.

“It’s been a challenging, enjoyable way to spend a lifetime working,” Hovland said. “If it doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

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