Eric Schulte, Camela Theeler officially nominated as federal judges in South Dakota

Move comes after months of negotiation between White House reps, offices of Republican Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds

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SIOUX FALLS — Eric Schulte and Camela Theeler, both of Sioux Falls, were officially nominated Wednesday as federal district judges by President Joe Biden’s administration, putting South Dakota’s U.S. District Court one step closer to having full representation for the first time in nearly two years.

The judicial candidacies and the process surrounding them were first reported by South Dakota News Watch.

The White House announced the names as part of a new round of judicial nominees Wednesday morning, calling the nominees “extraordinarily qualified, experienced, and devoted to the rule of law and our Constitution.” The announcement marked Biden’s 45th round of nominees for federal judicial positions, bringing the number of announced federal judicial nominees under his administration to 219. So far, 177 judges have been confirmed.

Schulte, a litigation lawyer with Davenport Evans in Sioux Falls, is a former president of the State Bar of South Dakota whose legal work focuses on general civil litigation, insurance defense, and commercial and complex litigation.

Theeler is a state circuit court judge and former assistant U.S. attorney who also worked in private practice with Lynn, Jackson, Schultz & Lebrun in Sioux Falls before being named assistant U.S. attorney in the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office in 2012. The Pierre native was appointed in 2018 by former Gov. Dennis Daugaard to South Dakota’s Second Judicial Circuit, which serves Minnehaha and Lincoln counties.

Both nominees are graduates of the University of South Dakota School of Law.

The names are now sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where committee members can question the nominees in a public hearing before reporting them favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation to the full Senate for a floor vote for confirmation.

"These are good choices for South Dakota and the effective administration of justice," said Sioux Falls lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who served on a committee to identify candidates early in the process. "I applaud President Biden for these nominations."  

GOP senators signed off on them

The Schulte and Theeler federal candidacies came after months of negotiation between White House representatives and the offices of Republican U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds.

That arrangement reflected the political reality of appointing judges in a Republican-controlled state under a Democratic administration in a presidential election year. The involvement of Thune and Rounds – and the fact that Schulte and Theeler are viewed as more politically centrist than extreme – had been expected to expedite a confirmation process that had previously stalled.

A sense of urgency has set in as Biden seeks to match or surpass the 234 judicial appointments notched during the term of former President Donald Trump. The timetable is accelerated by the fact that control of the White House and Senate could potentially change hands in November.

An administration official told Politico earlier this month that the White House has engaged in "active discussions with a number of Republican senators who have vacancies in their states. There are some senators who are holdouts, but thankfully, those senators are an overall minority.”

The timeline of judicial vacancies in South Dakota’s U.S. District Court started when Judge Jeffrey Viken of Rapid City announced his retirement in September 2021 but took senior status, a process by which judges assume a reduced workload and create a federal vacancy. He kept most of his criminal cases while his civil docket was distributed among other judges.

U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier of Sioux Falls announced in January 2023 that she plans to retire and take senior status upon the confirmation of her successor, which created the second vacancy.

Viken fully retired at the end of September 2023, meaning all Rapid City criminal cases fell to the other judges, creating the need for occasional help from out of state.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep up,” Chief U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange said in December. 

South Dakota’s district has four divisions: southern in Sioux Falls, northern in Aberdeen, central in Pierre and western in Rapid City. The federal courts handled 931 criminal and civil cases combined in 2023, up from 822 the previous year.

Indian Country jurisdiction makes a unique and busy docket, with the western division encompassing nearly 40% of South Dakota’s federal criminal cases filed in 2023.

Those criminal cases have been distributed among the district’s two active judges, Lange and Schreier, and two judges on senior status, Lawrence Piersol and Charles Kornmann.

South Dakota Democrats shut out of process

Biden was tasked with filling judicial vacancies in a heavy Republican state that already has a stable of Democratic-chosen lifetime appointees from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Of the active judges, Schreier was appointed by Clinton and Lange by Obama. Kornmann and Piersol were appointed by Clinton.

Biden has a razor-thin Senate majority that made it necessary to consult with Thune and Rounds to identify agreeable candidates. Judicial nominations typically go through a Senate tradition known as the “blue slip,” which allows home-state senators to weigh in on whether the nominee should move forward.

Complicating the process is the lack of a Democratic Party standard-bearer in South Dakota to shepherd the process of identifying, recommending and championing qualified candidates.

With no statewide elected Democrats in South Dakota, the task fell to Randy Seiler, a former U.S. attorney and South Dakota Democratic Party chair who died in April 2023 of a heart attack.

“When we lost Randy, that was a big blow,” said Shane Merrill of Parker, who now serves as state Democratic Party chair. “He had connections that I don’t have and never will have.”

Merrill told News Watch that he and SDDP executive director Dan Ahlers attempted to engage White House officials on possible nominees, with Ahlers stressing that “we’ve got to have a judge West River who knows the needs of the area and understands the differences in cultures.”

Biden has sought diversity on bench

That outreach from state Democrats, which included a trip to Washington, didn’t result in substantive conversations with Biden’s team about the judicial vacancies or nomination process.

“It really didn’t seem to go anywhere,” said Merrill, who took over as chair after predecessor Jennifer Slaight-Hansen was ousted for violating party rules. “A lot of this is political stuff that's handled through back-room deals. That’s just the way it is.”

Nearly two-thirds of the federal judges Biden has appointed so far are women, and the same percentage are members of racial or ethnic minority groups, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Theeler, named South Dakota Young Lawyer of the Year in 2009, is surrounded by legal experience in her family. Her husband, Tyson Theeler, is a USD law school graduate and vice president in trust administration for First Premier Bank. Her father-in-law, Jack Theeler, is a longtime defense attorney in Mitchell who earned his law degree at USD and starred as a basketball player for the Coyotes, earning a spot in the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame.

One of Cammy Theeler's most notable cases as a state circuit judge came in 2022 when she sentenced a 21-year-old man who was involved in May 2020 riots near the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls. 

In handing down a three-year prison sentence as part of a plea deal for third-degree burglary, Theeler outlined the reckless actions of young people involved, commended the work of detectives in identifying those at fault and called it a "traumatic event for Sioux Falls."