National Politics

Newest judge ready to tackle challenges of the bench

In this Aug. 30, 2019, photo, Judge Rachel Rasmussen poses for a portrait at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. Rasmussen was recently appointed to serve as a new judge in the Second Circuit.
In this Aug. 30, 2019, photo, Judge Rachel Rasmussen poses for a portrait at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. Rasmussen was recently appointed to serve as a new judge in the Second Circuit. Abigail Dollins

Hearing "all rise" as she stepped up to the bench for the first time was a bit odd for Rachel Rasmussen.

The newest Second Judicial Circuit Court judge knows it's a sign of respect for her profession, but it took some getting used to.

Rasmussen, 39, was appointed by Gov. Kristi Noem recently to be Minnehaha and Lincoln counties' 12th circuit court judge, a position added to the area after local judges and South Dakota Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson called on lawmakers to respond to the "explosion" of drug-related court cases.

Rasmussen is already familiar with the problem of drugs in the community and expects to see more in her role as circuit court judge.

"Meth has grown so much," Rasmussen told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader . "The trickle-down effect it has, from property crimes, things like that, has a lot bigger of a ripple effect than just the user themselves."

The Canton native will return to serve in her hometown in late September as the sole full-time circuit court judge in Lincoln County, presiding with another judge.

She spent a few years early in her career as a prosecutor with the Lincoln County State's Attorney's Office, handling misdemeanor, felony and juvenile cases. For the last few years of her time in the private sector, she served as a defense attorney through her private firm that held a contract with Lincoln County, and she rotated in the county in her role as a magistrate judge last year.

"I told them I keep showing up like a bad penny," Rasmussen joked recently in her soon-to-be-vacated Minnehaha County office.

Lincoln County is a large contributor to the growth of cases in the Second Circuit, with judges handling, on average, about 1,200 more cases than other South Dakota judges.

Since 2000, the Second Circuit Court's caseload in Lincoln County has increased by nearly 50 percent, making it the fourth-largest caseload in the state. From fiscal year 2009 to 2018, felony filings in that county have jumped by 154 percent.

Rasmussen's time as a magistrate judge for the last year in the Second Circuit opened her eyes to the amount of cases marching through the system. There are days where a judge can see upward of 80 defendants making their first appearances on new charges, she said, a number she didn't quite feel the gravity of until she sat behind the bench.

"The volume surprised me," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen's appointment continues a trend of female judges in the Second Circuit, putting women in the majority of presiding judges in both counties. Judge Sandra Hoglund Hanson's appointment last year marked the first-ever female dominated assemblage of second circuit court judges.

Though grateful about expanding opportunities, Rasmussen said she is looking forward to the day where female accomplishments are recognized as part of the norm and not an outlier.

She serves as backup judge for the mental health court, another product of the 2019 legislative session, and is helping create a program with the South Dakota Network Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault that focuses on rehabilitation and compliance for misdemeanor domestic violence offenders.

She wants to use her new role to give assurance to the public that the process works.

"People care in court," she said. "We can't fix everything from the bench, but I'm proud to be part of a judicial system and criminal justice system like that."

Rasmussen is both excited and a tad nervous for her upcoming role. She's been in just about every type of court hearing, but is ready to look at higher level cases with a broad viewpoint she acquired in years as an attorney, research assistant, managing editor of a legal publication and her time with the legal-research service LexisNexis.

Rasmussen received her undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota, then went to law school at the University of Minnesota. She spent time in the private sector, doing public criminal defense contracts, civil law, divorce, custody, land disputes, real estate transactions and tax law.

She enjoyed the variety.

"You never knew what was going to walk through the door," she said. "I could be learning about the American Quarter Horse Association this day and airplanes the next day."

She is looking forward to seeing it all again from a neutral third-party perspective as a judge, a goal she's had in the back of her mind for years.

Prior to her circuit court appointment, Rasmussen served as a magistrate judge for the Second Circuit for about one year, presiding over misdemeanor cases, evictions and civil and small cases up to $12,000.

She was appointed by Presiding Judge Robin Houwman to the magistrate judgeship after former magistrate judge Crystal Johnson stepped down to return to prosecuting at the Minnehaha County State's Attorney's Office.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

This is an AP Member Exchange Feature provided by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader

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