Candidates for a circuit court judgeship in South Dakota’s Fourth District, from left: Jennifer Tomac, John H. Fitzgerald, Tina Hogue, Chad Callahan, David Natvig. (submitted photos)
Contested circuit judge elections are a rarity in South Dakota.
Just one sitting judge, Robert Spears in central South Dakota’s Third Circuit, faces a challenge this year. Another open seat in the Sioux Falls area has two candidates.
The Fourth Circuit, however, will make history on Nov. 8, when voters will choose from five judicial hopefuls to fill a single open seat – the largest slate of candidates for one position since 1972.
South Dakota law has no provision for a runoff after a general election in circuit judge races. That means the top vote-getter could land on the bench in the circuit regardless of the vote tally.
The Fourth Circuit covers Butte, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Lawrence, Meade, Perkins and Ziebach counties.
The race for the open seat on the bench didn’t take shape until this summer. Judge Kevin Krull, appointed just three years ago by Gov. Kristi Noem, didn’t have a challenger in the June 7 primary, but tendered his resignation just one day after ballots were cast.
Krull told the Black Hills Pioneer that he chose to resign “for both personal and professional reasons.”
Into the vacuum stepped two private attorneys, one sitting magistrate judge, one current county prosecutor and one former county prosecutor. One of those prosecutors lost his seat as director of the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) earlier this year when former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was removed from office for his conduct related to a fatal traffic crash.
Here’s a rundown of the candidates for judge on the Nov. 8 ballot, beginning with the Fourth Circuit race.
Crowded ballot in Fourth Circuit
Judicial candidate David Natvig came close to securing the Republican nod for attorney general at the GOP nominating convention in June. He’d pledged not to re-hire Ravnsborg if he secured the nomination for the statewide position, but lost by about six percentage points to Marty Jackley.
Before ascending to the DCI directorship in 2019, Natvig spent 16 years as Brule County State’s Attorney in Chamberlain. The 57-year-old also worked on civil cases as a private attorney while doing his part-time prosecutorial duties in Brule County, and spent six years as a prosecutor on the Crow Creek Reservation.
“Out of all the candidates on this ticket, I have the most well-rounded law career,” said Natvig, who has practiced law for 22 years. “My experience covers every type of legal matter.”
The Kimball, South Dakota, native and University of South Dakota Law School graduate comes from a military family. He rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army.
“My family takes service to this great country very seriously, and that oath (to protect and defend the Constitution) is something I live by every day,” he said.
The candidate with the greatest name recognition in the Fourth Circuit may be John H. Fitzgerald. For the past 27 years, he’s been the Lawrence County state’s attorney in Deadwood. The USD Law School graduate moved into the Deadwood prosecutor’s position after 15 years as Butte County state’s attorney in Belle Fourche.
He ran against Ravnsborg for attorney general in 2018.
“As a state’s attorney I have enforced the law, protected people who cannot protect themselves, dealt with illicit drugs and crime,” said Fitzgerald, who moved to South Dakota from Boston at age 17. “From my years of experience as an active lawyer, I have acquired skills that could be applied to a different role as a judge.”
If Fitzgerald wins, however, the 67-year-old would not be able to fill out his 8-year term. South Dakota law requires judges to retire at age 70.
Fitzgerald’s political involvement has also become an issue in the race. The Dakota Scout reported this week that Fitzgerald was asked to step down from his roles as Republican party precinct committeeman and his position with the Republican Party Central Committee following a complaint to the South Dakota Special Committee on Judicial Election Campaign Intervention.
The remaining three candidates have less time in law enforcement than Natvig and Fitzgerald, but more experience in other areas of the law.
Jennifer Tomac, 42, is a private attorney in Rapid City, her hometown. She opened her own office eight years ago, where she focuses on elder law and estate planning. Before that, she spent time as a probate court staff attorney, a prosecutor and a public defender. She earned her law degree from Regent University in Virginia, the state where she clerked for the Virginia Supreme Court.
“My experience in all areas of the law, in addition to my temperament and ability to see and understand all sides of an issue (make me the most qualified candidate),” Tomac said. “I’m a real person who truly cares about the people of our community.”
Magistrate Judge Chad Callahan, 49, earned his law degree from the Ohio Northern University and spent time in private practice before becoming a deputy public defender in Rapid City. Fourth Circuit Presiding Judge Michael Day appointed Callahan to the magistrate bench five years ago after a stint as the Rapid City office supervisor for former Attorney General Marty Jackley.
Callahan, 49, said he has the endorsement of Day, as well as the two other Fourth Circuit judges, Michelle Comer and Eric Strawn.
“They know better than anyone what the job entails,” Callahan said. “They have had the opportunity to observe my work as a magistrate judge for the past five years, and I am proud that they endorse me.”
Tina Hogue rounds out the five candidates in the Fourth Circuit. Hogue is a graduate of USD Law School, and she’s worked in private practice for the past 25 years – including 21 as a partner at Monument Law in Rapid City.
Hogue is a past president of the South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association and has served in various capacities on the board of directors for Behavior Management Systems, including board president.
Hogue is running to “apply my legal knowledge to matters that affect our state.”
“I believe my election to the Fourth Circuit court bench will strengthen the people’s confidence in an independent and just judicial system,” Hogue said. “I will remain faithful to the law, maintain utmost professional integrity and competence, and will not be swayed by partisan interests.”
Two prosecutors vie for Second Circuit judgeship
The largest judicial circuit in the state has a contested race to replace retired judge Bradley Zell. Both candidates are prosecutors by training, though one has spent nearly as much time as a magistrate judge.
Eric Johnson, 47, started out in Sioux Falls in the Minnehaha County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2007. He was appointed in 2016 by Larry Long, then the presiding judge of the circuit. The Vermillion native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Law School graduate sees a move from the magistrate to the circuit bench as a natural progression.
“I think that the work we do in the magistrate court is very important to the community, and I’d like to handle a more diverse caseload, if possible,” Johnson said.
In addition to presiding over magistrate-level jury trials for misdemeanors and lower-level civil cases, Johnson is the presiding judge for the Second Circuit Veterans Treatment Court, an alternative court for service members charged with criminal offenses.
“If I am fortunate enough to win, my hope is to stay on with Veterans Court,” Johnson said. “Trying to get justice-involved veterans to a point where they’re doing well and feeling well is a great feeling.”
Johnson’s opponent, Doug Barnett, is the supervisor of the Attorney General’s Office in Sioux Falls. USD graduate Barnett, 50, is from Sioux Falls. Barnett has spent nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, a job he said he looks upon as public service.
“As a prosecutor, you need to look at all sides of an issue,” Barnett said. “I’ve never viewed my job as looking for a conviction. I’ve always viewed my job as searching for the truth.”
Barnett pointed to his experience as a state-level prosecutor as a qualification, given the level of travel and investigation involved.
“I have litigated, and I’ve been involved with some of the more complex cases that a judge would see. I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the state and litigate before dozens of judges across the state,” Barnett said. “Over time, you really do gain meaningful experience in terms of what it takes to be a judge.”
Third Circuit sees challenger
The only other contested circuit court election in South Dakota will take place in the Third Circuit, which serves 14 counties in eastern South Dakota. Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore, 53, is looking to unseat Judge Robert Spears, 68.
Moore grew up in Ohio but graduated from the USD Law School. He started prosecuting cases in Huron, South Dakota in 1994, and was elected state’s attorney in 1996. He’s been in the position ever since.
“It’s a good transition,” Moore said. “I’ve been prosecuting for 28 years. My job is to look at the evidence, consider the law, and make fair decisions based on what the evidence is.”
Moore also pointed out that unlike Spears, he would be able to complete the full 8-year term.
Spears did not respond to requests for comment from South Dakota Searchlight.
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