PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Five candidates are competing this fall for election to a circuit judgeship in western South Dakota, including a current magistrate judge and two others who have run for South Dakota attorney general.

Each hopes to succeed Circuit Judge Kevin Krull. Governor Kristi Noem appointed him in 2019 to the Fourth Circuit that covers Butte, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Lawrence, Meade, Perkins, and Ziebach counties. 

Krull had been the only candidate running for election to a full eight-year term in the post. But his withdrawal on July 5 opened a second chance for others to get on the ballot without having to run against an incumbent.

The five attorneys now campaigning are Tina Hogue from Monument Law in Rapid City, Fourth Circuit Magistrate Judge Chad Callahan, Jennifer Tomac of Black Hawk, Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald, and former Brule County State’s Attorney David Natvig.

Fitzgerald was one of three candidates who sought the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2018 to succeed Marty Jackley, who ran for governor. Delegates at the South Dakota Republican convention nominated Jason Ravnsborg.

After Ravnsborg won that November, he chose Natvig as director for the state Division of Criminal Investigation. Ravnsborg later pleaded no-contest to two misdemeanors in the 2020 death of pedestrian Joe Boever, after the car Ravnsborg was driving struck and killed Boever. The Senate removed Ravnsborg from office this past June.

While Ravnsborg’s impeachment proceeded, Natvig, announced his candidacy for the 2022 Republican nomination for attorney general. He came close to defeating Jackley at the South Dakota Republican convention days after Ravnsborg’s removal. A few days after that, the governor chose Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo to serve as the replacement for Ravnsborg. Vargo then let Natvig go as DCI director.

And a few days after that, Judge Krull withdrew from the ballot. His decision to not run re-opened the process for candidates to file. Five did, and KELOLAND News asked them for their responses to several questions. Here’s what each had to say, in the order their names appear on the ballot.

Tina Hogue said, “I am sorry but I am not able to answer a questionnaire.  However, I am attaching my press release for your information.”

Chad Callahan is in his fifth year as a magistrate judge for the Fourth Circuit and works from the same building in Sturgis as Circuit Judge Krull.

“The remaining current Fourth Circuit Court judges — Mike Day, Michelle Comer and Eric Strawn — all support me and have encouraged me to seek the position. Past and current Fourth Circuit judges Tim Johns, Randall Macy, Comer and Strawn all benefited from years as a magistrate judge before they became a circuit judge. It’s a natural progression,” Callahan said.

He added, “Prior to becoming a magistrate judge, I spent 18 years as a practicing attorney. Those years include eight years in private civil practice, then six years as an assistant public defender in Rapid City followed by four years as a felony prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Office under Marty Jackley. My broad-based, courtroom-focused experience makes me uniquely qualified for the position.”

Jennifer Tomac recalled an experience from when she was starting her career.

“When I was in law school, a local circuit court judge came to our school to judge a moot court competition. I was talking with him after one of the rounds he judged and he asked me which of my classes I was enjoying the most and which area of law I thought I would focus on. I responded that I genuinely liked all of my classes and all areas of the law. He looked back at me and said that I should consider being a judge because the best judges love and have knowledge about all areas of law, always keep the burden of proof in the front of their mind, and never get tired of resolving disputes.”

“I’ve carried his words with me throughout my career. I purposely practiced many areas of law, from criminal defense and prosecution to appellate work at the Virginia Supreme Court, to a civil law practice of divorce/custody, contracts, estate planning, probate, elder law, et cetera.

“Our judicial election process is so interesting. Because we only elect our judges once every eight years, but judges have mandatory retirement at age 70, seventh-eighths of the time when a judge retires, the public doesn’t vote on their replacement — the governor chooses their replacement. Then when that appointed judge runs in the next election, they are running as an incumbent and they rarely get challenged.

“So, this year presented a very unique opportunity. My husband and I spent about two weeks really thinking, discussing, and praying about what this would look like for our family and our current business. It has been such an interesting process – from walking around asking people to sign my nomination petition, to talking about it with family and friends. I’ve learned so much about the process and have met a lot of great people.

“I think the thing that is most difficult for people to understand is that this is a nonpartisan election. When I was walking around asking for signatures on my nomination petition, the question I was asked the most was ‘What party are you?’ I always got raised eyebrows when I said ‘Neither.’ Same with my Facebook posts, comments like ‘I’ll vote for her if she’s a Republican/Democrat.’

“So, I’m really trying to treat this campaign as a chance to educate people about our judicial system. I created a website for the sole purpose of trying to provide the voters with some background and information about this judicial election and why it’s special and different than other elections.

“I think the varied backgrounds of the candidates is interesting. As you pointed out, two of the five candidates have experience running political campaigns. Their experience definitely leans toward the criminal prosecution side of things. The role of a criminal prosecutor, whether it be AG, DCI or state’s attorney, is very different than the role of a judge. The roles require very different temperament and perspective.

“A judicial campaign is so different than every other type of campaign because judges, and judicial candidates, can’t make promises, they can’t have stances on issues, they aren’t policy makers. So, in this type of election, the voters should really be voting for the person – not a party, not an issue. What it really comes down to is, ‘Is this a person that I can trust to make fair, impartial, well-reasoned decisions on every matter that comes before them in the courtroom?'”

“Another thing to remember is that in South Dakota, judges have mandatory retirement at age 70. These means that, if elected, one of the five candidates will not be able to serve the full eight-year term. He will have to retire from the bench about five years into his eight-year term. So, the public won’t get to vote for his replacement – the governor will get to name his replacement.”

John Fitzgerald described what went through his mind when Judge Krull withdrew.

“I have been interested in a judgeship for some time. I look forward to the opportunity to serve the public in another capacity, and grateful that such an opportunity arose,” he said. “I think allowing the people to directly elect who will be the next judge is commendable. An election by the people who are served by a judge is a better system than a selection of candidates by a committee.”

As for what he’s emphasizing, Fitzgerald said, “I graduated from BHSU and USD Law School (Black Hills State University and University of South Dakota) and have been living and practicing law in the Fourth Judicial Circuit for a long time. I served as Butte County state’s attorney from 1981 to 1995 and as Lawrence County state’s attorney from 1995 to the present.

“I was selected by the South Dakota State’s Attorneys Association members as its 2012 prosecutor of the year. From 2016 to 2020 I was elected vice president and then president of the South Dakota State’s Attorneys Association by my fellow state’s attorneys. I currently serve as chairman of the South Dakota State’s Attorneys Association Board of Directors,” he continued

“From my years of practicing law, I understand the issues that face the court system, like illicit drugs, crime, the increasing costs of the criminal justice system to the taxpayers, and the importance of the institution of the family,” Fitzgerald said. “Seeking justice, treating people alike, being impartial, making decisions promptly on the law and the facts, and protecting the right to trial are goals. I have a working knowledge of the rules of evidence and criminal and civil procedure.”

Asked whether the presence of two past candidates for attorney general had any effect on the current campaign, Fitzgerald said, “This is a five-way race for judge. All the candidates are unique and qualified to serve the Fourth Judicial Circuit as a judge. The number of candidates is a positive sign of lawyers’ willingness to serve. It’s an interesting experience to participate in an election with so many candidates.”

He added, “I believe strongly that we have three co-equal branches of government that act as checks and balances on each other, and the role of the judge is to interpret the law, not make it.”

Asked whether his current status as a state’s attorney and another candidate’s past work as a state’s attorney had any effect on the campaign, Fitzgerald said, “I am not running for state’s attorney, I am running for judge. I am concerned about the practice of law in our state and the ability of the ordinary citizen to access the court system is of great importance.

“An outdated method of licensing lawyers in our state and other factors are negatively impacting the ability of the average citizen, especially those in the rural areas, to access the court system. It has shrunk the pool of court-appointed attorneys available to represent persons accused of a crime and increased the burden to the taxpayers in our state who pay for our justice system,” he said.

“South Dakota ranks 46th out of 50 states in per capita lawyers. Some of the counties in the Fourth Judicial Circuit have no lawyers living in that county. Decreasing the supply of lawyers has increased the cost of hiring a lawyer, and impacts those who need lawyers the most. Some people don’t like lawyers or judges but they are essential in upholding our Constitution, freedoms, property, and our inalienable rights.”

Fitzgerald pointed out what he described as his lengthy experience as a lawyer. “At this point in my career, I have served as an active South Dakota state’s attorney for decades. I have tried several hundred jury trials for crimes such as rape, robbery, kidnapping, capital murder and every other imaginable crime. I am in court on a regular basis and have a front row seat to what is going on in the Fourth Circuit. My wife and I have three children, and six grandchildren, all living in the area. I have a vested interest in keeping our court system great for the people who live here.

“The best part of an election for me as a candidate is the opportunity to meet the people who will be voting November 8, 2022. Meeting those people reminds me of the privilege that public service is,” Fitzgerald said.

David Nativg moved from Kimball to Pierre when he accepted the DCI director appointment. The withdrawal by Judge Krull opened the door to a new opportunity.

“We have had a connection to this area for years. I have family who were born and raised and are buried here. This election is something of a rarity in South Dakota, it’s almost a once in a generation chance to make the people in this part of the state feel a true connection with the judiciary. I have traveled and shaken hands with the folks all across this part of the state during this campaign, and these visits have really driven home how wide the gap is between these folks and their understanding of what a judge is and what a judge does. It’s just been fantastic to have these conversations and talk about what a great opportunity this is for the folks to be involved, to be part of the process and to select the judge,” Natvig said.

He’s emphasizing what he described as his broad legal background.

“When you look at my resume, now with over 22 years as an attorney, I have handled every type of case that would come before a circuit judge in South Dakota,” Natvig said. “While I have over 16 years as a prosecutor on behalf of the state, I also spent six years as the prosecutor for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and that’s something none of the other candidates have done.

“I have tried some very significant civil cases, from representing a school district to make the taxpayers whole in a construction case, to representing ranchers, business owners and individuals in just about every type of civil case you can imagine, from abstracts to zoning. I have personally handled appeals cases to the South Dakota Supreme Court, I have spent much of my life working with people to resolve their issues, from their adoptions to handling their business matters, doing their taxes, writing their wills, I’ve represented towns and cities, local utility companies, and every type of legal matter you can think of. I’ve tried cases to juries and to judges, and I think people are looking for someone with this type of background, who has the even temperament, the ability to treat people with respect and work hard as the judge to make timely decisions of all these different types of cases that come before a circuit judge.”

As for his and an opponent’s past candidacies for attorney general, Natvig said those have had no effect on this campaign. He said their past and current work as state attorneys haven’t either.

Asked whether there was anything else he wanted to point out, Nativg said, “I would ask that people take a look at all the candidates. If they do, I think they will find that I am the most well-rounded candidate who has not just prosecuted, not just defended, and not just done civil cases but that I have handled all aspects of the law.”