US Senate confirms Theeler, Schulte as federal district judges

Camela Theeler will be assigned to the Western Division in Rapid City, while Eric Schulte will work the Central Division in Pierre.

US Senate confirms Theeler, Schulte as federal district judges
The federal courts in South Dakota handled 931 criminal and civil cases combined in 2023, up from 822 the previous year. (Photo: Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch)

For the first time since 2021, South Dakota will have a full roster of federal district judges.

Camela Theeler, a state circuit court judge in Sioux Falls, was confirmed by a vote of 90-4 in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, clearing the way for the Pierre native to take the bench with a lifetime appointment in South Dakota's U.S. District Court.

That came a day after Sioux Falls lawyer Eric Schulte was confirmed by a vote of 61-33, finalizing a lengthy process of trying to find candidates agreeable to both parties to fill judicial vacancies and take pressure off a crowded federal docket.

Theeler is a state circuit court judge 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.

Prior to the confirmation vote, Sen. Mike Rounds spoke on the Senate floor about Theeler's experience and public service, stressing that she will "undoubtedly exercise judicial restraint and apply the laws as written."

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond (Virginia) law professor who studies federal judicial nominations, cited the involvement of Rounds and fellow Republican Sen. John Thune to find "qualified, experienced, mainstream candidates who would be acceptable to them and (President Joe Biden)."

In remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, Thune said Schulte "has the experience and knowledge to be a district judge and, crucially, I believe that he has the character and impartiality for a lifetime appointment on the federal bench."

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.

Both appointees are graduates of the University of South Dakota School of Law. Theeler will be assigned to the Western Division in Rapid City, while Schulte will work the Central Division in Pierre.

Eric Schulte, a litigation lawyer with Davenport Evans and former president of the State Bar of South Dakota, was nominated to the federal bench by President Joe Biden. (Photo: Davenport Evans)

Election year added urgency

The Schulte and Theeler federal candidacies came after months of negotiation between White House representatives and the offices of Thune and Rounds.

That arrangement reflected the political reality of appointing judges in a Republican-controlled state under a Democratic administration in a presidential election year. Biden has a razor-thin Senate majority that made it necessary to consult with Thune and Rounds to identify agreeable candidates.

"When there's uncertainty about which party will control the White House and Senate, as there is in 2024, it lends itself to such agreements," Tobias said.

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.

“Eric Schulte and Camela Theeler are both well-qualified attorneys and highly respected within the South Dakota Bar Association and in their communities,” Thune and Rounds said in a joint statement to News Watch in February, when Schulte and Theeler were nominated by Biden. “Throughout our discussions with the White House, we stressed the importance of nominating candidates who would exercise judicial restraint and apply the law fairly.”

Camela Theeler of Sioux Falls was sworn in as a judge in the Second Circuit of South Dakota in 2018. The Pierre native was named South Dakota Young Lawyer of the Year in 2009. (Photo: KELO-TV)

Vacancies date back to 2021

The timeline of judicial vacancies in South Dakota’s federal courts started when U.S. District 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 Judge Karen Schreier of Sioux Falls announced in January 2023 that she planned 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.

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.

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

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.

Theeler appointed by Daugaard in 2018

When a federal judge is confirmed, the Senate notifies the White House in writing, after which the president signs a commission appointing the nominee as a judge to a specific court.

The judge can be seated as soon as the court administers the oath of office and completes the associated appointment papers, which could happen for Schulte and Theeler within weeks.

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.

Camela Theeler, a Pierre native, was appointed in 2018 by former Gov. Dennis Daugaard to South Dakota’s Second Judicial Circuit, which serves Minnehaha and Lincoln counties.

From the perspective of the Biden administration, Schulte’s candidacy was aided by the fact that he worked to boost the number of Native American lawyers as president of the bar association. Schulte promoted recruitment events along with support for Native students such as financial assistance with law school entry.

This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization. Read more in-depth stories at sdnewswatch.org and sign up for an email every few days to get stories as soon as they're published. Contact Stu Whitney at stu.whitney@sdnewswatch.org.