Flandreau native Karen Schreier has the distinction of being the first female judge appointed by a president to serve in South Dakota.
After nearly 20 years working in that spot as a U.S. District Judge for the District of South Dakota, she retains the distinction of being the only one. This summer will mark her 20th year on the bench after being appointed in 1999 by President Bill Clinton.
“She really is an historical figure in South Dakota,” said U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons. “I don’t think she gets the recognition she deserves.”
Schreier, 62, initially was recommended by former Sen. Tom Daschle to be the U.S. Attorney. She was nominated March 8, 1999, to the judgeship by Clinton, confirmed by the senate on June 30, 1999, and beginning Aug. 13 of that year, has served both the west river and Sioux Falls areas of the state from the federal bench. In addition to trailblazing in the state’s federal system, she has tried to be an advocate for women along the way, making sure they are included on judicial committees and encouraging them to get involved.
“I’ve tried to be a good role model and a good mentor to other women attorneys in the area and give them advice,” she said. It takes encouragement to get people involved. “I try to be the nudger.”
It’s a role that Pamela Reiter, a Sioux Falls lawyer who last year was president of the South Dakota Bar Association, has witnessed.
“She’s been a real mentor to me as a person that kind of came up through the ranks and was able to navigate my place into leadership in the state bar,” she said. “I think she’s a strong supporter of all lawyers. She’s very interested in educating people about the federal court.”
Schreier is down-to-earth and makes people feel welcome in her courtroom, Reiter said.
“She’s very professional. She is always very gracious, very willing and open to speak with anyone. She has a very welcoming personality. She doesn’t make you feel dumb if you want to ask questions,” she said. “She’s very interested in South Dakotans.”
One of Schreier’s most memorable cases involved the question of whether Native American voters on Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations were discriminated against in the drawing up of boundaries for voting districts for the state legislature. She ruled they were, after hearing testimony that she describes as getting a history lesson.
“I learned so much about South Dakota history and the actions of our officials that I was never aware of before,” she said. “It was like taking a class in South Dakota history during a one-week trial.”
It takes connections and involvement to be able to be appointed to federal positions. Schreier knows Daschle well and had been co-chair of the Clinton-Gore campaign in South Dakota.
“It was really exciting, especially to be the first woman,” she said of her appointment.
Sometimes the position is a startling view of the number of women in law leadership. Schreier remembers when U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno visited South Dakota and Schreier accompanied her to a gathering of law enforcement in the state.
“She and I walked into the room and looked around, and we were the two only women in the room,” Schreier said.
As a federal judge, Schreier is in charge of cases that involve federal laws, both criminal and civil, and bankruptcy appeals. She has reservations in Flandreau and Yankton within her jurisdiction. A typical day could include a jury trial, a court trial, a sentencing, a hearing on motions, a plea change or time in her chambers writing decisions. Drug cases, including methamphetamines, fentanyl and heroine, are gobbling up more and more time in the court system.
“Our caseload seems to keep increasing but we don’t get any additional resources,” she said of the federal court system.
Being a woman means she sometimes approaches things differently. For sentencings, for example, she tries to find out from the defendant what they have done that is positive, changes they have made and what they hope to accomplish. It’s more of almost a motherly viewpoint, trying to get people on the right path and steering them in the right path,” she said. “I still need to give the sentence that is appropriate for the actions that they did, but what I’m hoping is it will steer them in the right direction once they have done their time.”
Anthony Sutton is one of three Flandreau law clerks that have worked with Schreier. During his two years as clerk, he watched Schreier put people at ease in her courtroom and witnessed her being respectful to defendants and lawyers, being stern but never rude.
“She’s extremely, extremely intelligent. She’s intelligent in ways that she can put it in terms that people can understand,” he said. “Her ability to empathize with them I always thought was really impressive.”
She also was a good teacher for young lawyers and offering an example of what is important, said Sutton, 30.
“She’s very true to her roots. She loves Flandreau. When you work for her, she’s more than just your boss. She’s your teacher of life.”
Schreier’s interest in law started when she was a page in the state senate her junior year at Flandreau High School. Her father, Harold, was a lawmaker, and she enjoyed the legislative process while in Pierre.
“I was really interested in laws and how laws impacted people,” she said. “I thought I would give it a shot.”
Schreier graduated from Flandreau High School in 1974 and earned her undergraduate degree in 1978 from Saint Louis University. She added her law degree in 1981 from the same college. She was a judicial law clerk for South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Francis G. Dunn from 1981-1982, at which time she went into private practice in Sioux Falls until 1993.
In 1993, she became the U.S. States Attorney for the District of South Dakota, followed with her appointment to the federal bench, starting in August 1999. Nationally, between a quarter and one third of the 673 judges in Schreier’s position are women, she said.
Schreier is married to Tim Dougherty, who she enjoys biking and hiking with in the Black Hills. She has one sister, Janet Chamblin, who lives in Flandreau. Her sister Sandy Jameson is in Omaha, while her siblings Linda Schreier and Louis Schreier both live in St. Louis where their mother, Maysie, was born.
A federal judgeship appointment is a job for life, and Schreier can stay in the position as long as she chooses. She has no plans to change what she’s doing.