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Dedication to Judge Kathleen F. Trandahl.

The Board of Editors of the South Dakota Law Review is honored to dedicate Volume 62 to Judge Kathleen F. Trandahl of South Dakota's Sixth Judicial Circuit Court. The South Dakota Law Review joins Judge Trandahl's colleagues in saluting her outstanding career as a lawyer, colleague, and judge. The Board is pleased to be able to recognize, through this dedication, Judge Trandahl's outstanding record of service on the bench as well as her contributions to South Dakota's legal community.


Judge Trandahl, a native of Madison, South Dakota, graduated from Augustana (College) University in 1982, and attended the Institute of Comparative Political and Economic Systems at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Judge Trandahl continued her education at the University of South Dakota School of Law, graduating in 1985. She was admitted to the South Dakota Bar in 1986, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Court in 1989.

Judge Trandahl began her legal career as a law clerk for the Honorable Dale E. Bradshaw of South Dakota's Third Judicial Circuit. In 1986, she became the Deputy State's Attorney for Tripp County in Winner, South Dakota. Judge Trandahl also worked in private practice for seven years before becoming the sole proprietor of Trandahl Law office in 1993. In 1994, Governor Walter Miller appointed Judge Trandahl to the bench for South Dakota's Sixth Judicial Circuit.

In addition to her professional responsibilities, Judge Trandahl has also generously dedicated her time to assisting with the implementation of HOPE Probation in Tripp and Gregory Counties and has worked as a backup judge for the STOP DUI/Drug Court for Hughes and Stanley Counties. She has also has served as Chair for the Court Appointed Special Advocates ("CASA") Commission, the State Chair for iCivics, and participated in the Governor's Commission on the Indian Child Welfare Act and the South Dakota Equal Justice Commission. Judge Trandahl volunteers her time helping out with various events and activities at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

Outside of the legal community, Judge Trandahl also currently serves as President of P.E.O., Chapter AM, on the Board of Directors for South Dakota Voices for Children, and is a member of Rotary International. She also enjoys spending time with her husband, Edward Hellewell; sons, Nick and Ryan Trandahl; step-children, Eve, Joshua, and Taylor (Amber) Hellewell; and stepgrandchildren, Jayden, Rylee, Stryder, Noah, Hannah, and Sarah.

Judge Trandahl's decades of service have earned her the highest respect from members of the State Bar of South Dakota, the University of South Dakota School of Law, and the community that she has served. As a result, Judge Trandahl has been honored with numerous awards, including the 2014 University of South Dakota's Women in Law Attorney of the Year Award, the Rotary International Paul Harris Award, and the Distinguished Graduate Award from St. Thomas School in Madison, South Dakota.


We grew up in the same town, our parents were good friends, but I did not really get to know Kathleen Felker Trandahl until I had the privilege to serve as a judge with her. The Sixth Circuit, where we served together from 1994 until 2011, is gigantic--about 17,720 square miles. That is slightly smaller than the states of Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey combined (I was convinced the Sixth Circuit had more pheasants than people). We covered many miles just to get to court without regard to the time it took to conduct court sessions. There is no doubt that Judge Trandahl holds the Sixth Circuit record for miles driven on Highway 18.

I especially enjoyed the gender equity of having Judge Trandahl at the table at judge's meetings when policy decisions needed to be made. Judge Trandahl was innovative, not shy, and had a finely honed sense of justice. It took Judge Trandahl about ten years of "judging" to see that addictions were a major problem for our citizens and our court system. She realized the tools available to deal with those addictions were not working effectively. Judge Trandahl became a Drug Court pioneer and was part of the first team from South Dakota to attend National Association of Drug Court Professionals training in 2004. She blazed a trail by implementing drug court principles in the courtrooms she served in parts of the state with limited services but great need. This work exemplifies Judge Trandahl's dedication to the communities she served and those individuals who appeared before her. She treated folks fairly while still holding them accountable for their actions. And with her retirement, she leaves all those communities and individuals better off than had she not been their judge.

Judge Trandahl's passion for protecting our children was evidenced by her service as a member of the CASA Commission. She also more recently was instrumental in establishing a civics education program for our young people. Judge Trandahl's work as a member of the Equal Justice Commission was also important to her constituents. The thing I admire even more than her professional achievements is the person that she is. Judge Trandahl's personal values of honesty, fairness, compassion, and empathy formed every decision she made, on and off the bench. She started out as a thoughtful mentor and ended up as a good friend to me and to many others over the years. Dedicating this volume of the South Dakota Law Review to Judge Kathleen Trandahl is a fine tribute to a woman who has served this state fairly, with an even hand, and great respect for the rule of law for nearly a quarter of a century. I am grateful to have worked by her side.


On my first day of law school I sat down next to Kathleen Trandahl. The friendship that began all those years ago was an answer to a prayer. It has remained a daily blessing ever since. Kathleen is known to most of you as a Circuit Judge. There is so much more about her that I would like you to know.

Kathleen has the ability to make everyone feel welcome. She sees people as individuals. I have watched her over the years and she almost instantly connects with people. She is genuinely interested in you. When she asks how you are doing, she means it. Kathleen doesn't see education, social, or economic status. Everyone is treated on an equal playing field. This is one of the many reasons that she is such a respected Judge.

Having the responsibility that comes with the appointment to the Circuit Court bench is enormous. Kathleen was as mindful of that responsibility from the day she received Governor Walter Miller's phone call until her last case. She would call me late at night and early in the morning from work. She did not go home until she was done, no matter the hour. During a typical South Dakota winter and a long travel day, she would find a way to attend her sons' activities. She somehow managed to make time for her family and friends despite this grueling schedule. I would often urge her to slow down a bit. She always laughed this suggestion off and asked how I was.

Kathleen's dedication to her community of Winner is an often overlooked aspect of her career. She loves Winner. I helped her move there after she finished her clerkship. The excitement that I saw that day still exists. The good people of her community came out in droves to thank her at her retirement party last fall. They did not just know her from the court system. She was known from church, Rotary, and school activities--just to name a few. Kathleen has always felt that a Judge should be a visible and involved member of their community. She is the perfect example of a beloved hometown Judge.

The law school has always been one of Kathleen's special interests. She has spent many-a-day in Vermillion volunteering to help mentor on numerous levels. She has also served the State Bar through continuous involvement on committees. As a Judge, she also served in leadership and planning roles for the Unified Judicial System. She worked on a national level running the South Dakota iCivics program, one of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's pet projects. She also currently serves on the Rural Practice Committee. This project is a prime example of Kathleen's love of both her local community and the legal community that serves it.

Finally, I must tell you that without Kathleen's friendship I am unsure how I would have muddled through all these years. She has helped me through tough times and joyous ones. She has always been there for a phone call regarding a legal issue, a parent question, or just to visit. We have laughed and cried together. I am so proud of all that she has accomplished. She is a quiet hero to me and to every life she has touched. Thank you for allowing me to tell just a small part of her story.


Judge Trandahl has set the benchmark of being the longest sitting female circuit judge in the history of South Dakota. For twenty-three years, she was charged with the difficult task of taking care of the rugged terrain of the Sixth Judicial Circuit. This terrain is rugged in more than one respect. It is rugged in terms of issues and influences which are political, geographical and cultural. Over her tenure on the bench, she developed an unprecedented approach, bringing wisdom and peaceful resolutions to citizens of this circuit. She set an amazingly high standard in what she accomplished. Other outcomes which might have manifested unrest, politically and culturally, never evolved. I believe that the citizens of the Sixth Judicial Circuit may not fully appreciate what could have been otherwise. But, with Judge Trandahl's judicial temperament, they have enjoyed tranquility instead of chaos. Some may think I am overstating her contribution, but I am not.

During the last decade or more, I have come to realize that Judge Trandahl and I share many common interests. These interests have been premised, at least in part, upon a mutual desire to work toward an overall improvement in the laws affecting our society. Our mutual desires have included efforts aimed at: improvements in the law as it exists in legislative enactments and in establishing judicial precedent; improvements in how law is interpreted and applied by lawyers and judges; and improvements in the understanding and training of those who seek to join the legal and judicial professions. There is a special uniqueness about my relationship with Judge Trandahl--our relationship is underscored by a strong mutual desire which extends beyond the legal and judicial arena. This desire is to help all others, not just lawyers, law students, and judges. We both endeavor to combat and overcome the demonic forces which plague the human condition. These demonic forces frequently manifest in various forms such as addiction, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

It is no secret that the case of State v. David Whitesock has been a fundamental building block for our friendship. David appeared in court for sentencing on his third offense felony DUI in the summer of 2005. Judge Trandahl observed that David "looked like a tomcat that had been drug behind a pickup for two weeks." The traditional factors weighed heavily against David when it came time to sentencing. It would have been very easy for her to simply follow the norm and sentence David to a term of imprisonment. Had she done so, David would still have had the chance to find a pathway to recovery, but the environmental surroundings for David would have been far less conducive to success. But Judge Trandahl took the road less traveled. She had the insight and courage to focus on the rehabilitative good that could come from a lenient sentence as opposed to other traditional factors such as the need for societal retribution and restraint, subject to strict supervisory conditions. In this regard, she imposed more work upon herself than would have been required if she had followed the traditional factors. She had the notion, however, that she could assist David in his journey through the darkness of addiction and alcoholism--enabling him to find the world of sobriety and useful contribution to society. In August of 2013, Judge Trandahl administered the Attorney's Oath to David after he passed the bar exam and joined the South Dakota Bar. David now serves as the Chair of the South Dakota State Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee. He is also a Bush Foundation Fellow and the Addiction Informatics Officer for Face It TOGETHER, an organization working to solve drug and alcohol addiction.

I have come to learn that Judge Trandahl's approach in the handling of State v. David Whitesock was not an anomaly, but instead, she takes a personal interest--a strong personal interest--in all persons who come before her in the courtroom. Her ongoing interest in individuals frequently includes correspondence--and I am talking about the old-fashioned correspondence through letters, which requires extra time and patience, personal handwriting, and addressing envelopes--not the expedient e-mail messaging offered by the Internet today. Judge Trandahl has been truly unique in this regard.

When Judge Trandahl and I first began communicating, she told me that she felt like she knew much about me and about "how I teach." I was surprised by this, since she had not been a student of mine and had never been in one of my classes. She told me that she came to an understanding of my teaching through interviews with law students interviewing for clerkships, and also through conversations with our students and graduates in other settings. She also acquired background on me through her familiarity with my Family Law book and other writings.

I have never been in Judge Trandahl's Courtroom, but I still believe I have come to acquire an understanding of her as a judge as well. I have done so in a similar manner--through various forms of input I have received from those who have been in courtroom. First and foremost, I have, on many occasions, heard David Whitesock tell the story of his "sentencing," quoting Judge Trandahl at some length. His story includes the numerous follow-up interactions he had with Judge Trandahl. Among other things, she included the imposition of a geographic restriction on him for the purpose of attending college, forcing him to stay in South Dakota and not permitting him to return to North Dakota.

I have visited with former students who served as a judicial clerk for Judge Trandahl. One of the themes expressed by her former clerks is that she exhibits "care and concern for their well-being" over and above employment as a judicial clerk. She provides ongoing mentorship for them and other University of South Dakota School of Law graduates. Her care for the students is demonstrated in the numerous times she has come to Vermillion to attend various law school events and serve on discussion panels and forums.

I have also come to appreciate Judge Trandahl's judicial temperament by following her decisions and reading opinions by the Supreme Court of South Dakota affirming her decisions. If a litigant appeals one of her decisions, there is little likelihood of reversal. I have, however, read a few decisions by the Supreme Court which have gone the other way. I have always been skeptical of those, and upon closer examination, I usually found myself thinking that I preferred her decision.

Those who know me know that I am a fan of quotations. I am particularly fond of a quotation from John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He spoke these words in his Confirmation Hearing, before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, on Sept. 12, 2005, "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules. They apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire." (1) I believe these words apply to Judge Trandahl. When she presides as the judge, the event has never been about her. Her task has been about doing the right thing, and doing so with humility--even if doing the right thing involved greater commitment and what some other judges might consider to be bothersome inconvenience.


Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the "ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." (2) How this standard is applied, in some respects, depends on the direct experiences one might have with the subject being judged. The filter through which I am grateful to apply this standard to Judge Kathleen Trandahl begins as a defendant in her court, but continues today as her friend.

On a hot, windy June afternoon in 2005, I was introduced to Judge Trandahl. Facing a third offense felony DUI--my fifth lifetime--I sat with court appointed attorney David W. Siebrasse on a street bench in Winner, South Dakota. Mr. Siebrasse dropped a stack of files on the bench between us, pulling a thick file off the top. He said something like, "This is you, and you are in trouble. I'm not here to get you what you want, I'm here to get you what you need." Then, as I remember it, he paused and said, "The problem for you is Judge Trandahl."

Mr. Siebrasse went on to explain that Judge Trandahl was no-nonsense, but fair. But here I was, someone who had skated through the system for nearly a decade, causing havoc wherever I went. All the while, I was never really confronting what was wrong with me--the disease of addiction. To Judge Trandahl--and to any rational judge--I was a major public safety risk, so Mr. Siebrasse prepared me for the maximum sentence of two years in prison.

At sentencing a few months later, a plea agreement to avoid prison was presented to Judge Trandahl. She did not have to accept it; a path she had chosen from time-to-time. There were twenty-some defendants in that courtroom for sentencing or arraignment, and I was first. The process played out as expected. The State's Attorney provided the factual basis, the agreement was detailed, my attorney spoke for a few minutes, and I spoke for a few minutes. Then there was a pause.

Standing in the orange jail uniform, my tempered feelings of nervousness changed instantly to fear. Judge Trandahl began to speak, reviewing the lengthy pre-sentence investigation, and as I remember it, rhetorically asked, "How does someone like you, with some college education, a strong professional background, a supportive family, access to finances most don't have, end up in my courtroom?" Judge Trandahl wanted to know how I failed. She wanted to know how society failed me. She struggled because she knew I was struggling, that I was really sick, but neither I, nor anyone around me, knew it or knew what to do. So there I was, her problem; the criminal justice system's problem.

As a judge she has a duty to protect the public through the fair application of the law to the circumstances. In this case, someone with a history of five DUIs and an equal number of driving with a suspended license, her duty was to use all her power to keep me--a chronic drunk driver--off the street. But that is where the character of Judge Kathleen Trandahl appeared. She knew what society needed her to do. She also knew that I was on the last rung of life and needed help. The judge and the human being had a moment in that courtroom.

Judge Trandahl modified my sentence that day. She devised a path that would keep me out of prison. For the rest of my life, I will remember her stern but empathetic demand of me that day. She said I needed to think, really think about my life. For the first time in a long time, I would have the luxury of no distractions, no alcohol, just time to think about me. This was the ultimate second chance.

Every three to six months, I would write a letter to Judge Trandahl, providing a brief but detailed update on my progress and my goals. Every letter she responded. Those responses meant the world to me, my morale, and my healing.

Little by little, step-by-step, my life found meaning and purpose. I set goals I had never dared to dream. Returning to that courtroom in August 2013 to take the Oath of Attorney from Judge Trandahl was the result of her heart in a moment of great uncertainty.

Over the years, I have had the great fortune to tell Judge Trandahl "thank you" whenever we see each other or when I am simply compelled to write a personal email. She always dismisses her part in this shared experience, saying, "You had to do the hard work." Indeed, the trajectory of my life from near death and jail to becoming a lawyer and a husband with a life of meaning was not easy. But, Judge Trandahl was my catalyst for change. I return to that courtroom in my mind all the time; it was, and forever will be, the most transformative moment of my life.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life" (3) that Judge Trandahl was in that courtroom, a woman profound in the practice of law, with an enlarged sense of human understanding. Kathleen Trandahl is not only the mold from which all jurists should be cast, but, even more, she is the model for the ultimate measure of a human being.

[dagger] Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court.

[dagger] Retired magistrate judge.

[dagger] Professor Emeritus, University of South Dakota School of Law.

(1.) Confirmation Hearing of the Nomination of John G. Roberts, Jr. to be Chief Justice of the United States: Hearing Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 109th Cong. 55 (2005) (Statement of John G. Roberts, Jr.).

[dagger] Chief Data Officer at Face it TOGETHER.


(3.) THOMAS JEFFERSON, WRITINGS 4 (Merrill D. Peterson ed. 1984).
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Title Annotation:South Dakota Sixth Judicial Circuit Court; includes 4 testimonials
Author:Wilbur, Lori S.; Pahlke, Shawn J.; Baron, Roger M.; Whitesock, David M.
Publication:South Dakota Law Review
Article Type:Testimonial
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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