HURON — Circuit Judge Jon Erickson will always remember many of the cases, the defendants and the attorneys that have come before him in his 30 years on the bench.
But when asked if perhaps there is one case that stands out more so than the others, he recounts the day more than three dozen lawyers sat in his courtroom.
It was a railroad case involving scores of insurance companies going back to the turn of the 20th century and the issue of cleaning up the sludge pond below Huron’s roundhouse.
“And there were, I think, 40 lawyers on that case,” Erickson said.
His immediate challenge: how to seat them in his courtroom. An ongoing one: dealing with so many personalities.
“It was a case where you really had to take control of the case because you had some very strong-willed attorneys from out of state,” he said.
“It started out as one attorney was kind of lecturing me on how we were going to do things,” he said.
But if the attorney thought he was going to have any influence, he was mistaken.
Erickson, instead, told him and the 39 other lawyers how things would proceed before allowing them to begin laying out their arguments before him.
“And when I looked out in the audience, some of the South Dakota trial lawyers were people I had practiced law against or with and a couple of them were just sitting there chuckling,” Erickson said. “We managed to get that case settled.”
As he prepares to retire this week, he remembers many of the criminal cases that were settled with plea deals before they got to trial – such as the five homicides that happened in a 12-month span in Huron nearly 10 years ago – as well as those that were decided by juries.
Born in Watertown, Erickson’s family moved to Sioux Falls when he was about to start school at age five. He graduated from Lincoln High School and then earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
He began his legal career in a law firm in Chamberlain. Then, for seven years, he worked as an assistant attorney general for Attorney General Mark Meierhenry. He served a year in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pierre before Gov. George Mickelson appointed him to the bench in Huron in March 1988.
“I got to know George when we both served on the parole board,” Erickson said. “That’s how I met him and we became friends.”
At one point, he learned he was on Mickelson’s short list to become a judge.
“I hadn’t really ever thought about it much prior to that, and so I put my name in and went through the process and got appointed,” he said.
It was his grandmother who first planted the seed for what would be his path in life.
She loved to watch episodes of “Perry Mason” on TV.
“And she was always talking about, ‘somebody should become a lawyer,’” he said.
In college, he found that he liked politics and government and how everything worked.
“And being a lawyer is a logical extension of that,” he said. “You’re dealing with law, you’re dealing with major issues.”
For much of his career, Erickson has been either a prosecutor or a judge. But he had a taste of defense work for a brief time when he was in Chamberlain when he was appointed to some federal cases.
But he has always made it a point to see both sides of an argument in court.
“One of the things I did as a trial lawyer before we went to trial on a case, I would sit down and outline what I thought was the best defense case that the defense could make and then how I would meet that as the prosecutor,” he said.
“How would I respond to that, what arguments would I make?”
It’s important for judges to keep the pace of each trial moving, so as not to waste the jury’s time. Jurors are typically nervous, having never been in that situation before, and judges often try to ease their anxiety with humor.
“You’re really a kind of manager of the trial,” Erickson said. “One of the reasons I like, for example, where the judge sits in our courtroom is we’re not the center of attention, we’re off to the side.
“And that’s where it should be, because it’s not about us, it’s about the defendant or the parties and their case,” he said.
In his courtroom, lawyers have not had to ask him if they can approach the witness in a trial.
“I tell them beforehand, ‘you can approach the witness as long as you do it politely,’” Erickson said. “And once the trial starts, I try to fade into the background.”
As with any pursuit in life, technology has evolved.
“We started out with electric typewriters and we didn’t have cell phones,” he said. “We first got one cell phone that we shared among the judges, the court reporters and court services. Now we all carry them.
“At one time, we didn’t have computers on the bench. Now we do. The first computers we got were pretty primitive,” he said.
As he reflects back on his years presiding over cases decided by juries and sentencing offenders to probation, jail or prison, Erickson said there are many things the public doesn’t understand about judges because of so many rules that must be followed.
When criticism is leveled against a judge, for example, they can’t really respond.
“First of all, I don’t want to get into any of those arguments, but by rule we are not to engage in that kind of practice,” he said. “If I explain my decision, I explain it on the record or I explain it in a written opinion, but otherwise we don’t talk about it because we’re dealing with peoples’ lives.”
It happens, but judges try not to show any emotion. But that’s difficult to do sometimes, particularly with child abuse cases, he said.
He remembers a homicide case he was prosecuting where a grandmother had been left to starve to death by her family.
“And he (judge) started thinking about his own mother who had just passed away and he started crying and he turned his back to the jury so they wouldn’t see him,” Erickson said.
For a number of years, many of the people he has seen in his courtroom have been charged with offenses involving methamphetamine.
“We’re struggling with that,” he said. “We really haven’t found a really good answer to that.”
Legislators have passed laws making meth possession an offense that carries presumptive probation, unless a judge overrides it.
“I don’t have a real problem with that (probation) but for some of them it just doesn’t work,” he said.
He has revoked many probationary terms and has also not placed individuals on probation in the first place because of their history.
It’s not uncommon for the public to react with “it’s a slap on the wrist” when someone has been sentenced to probation rather than time behind bars.
“There are some people who want everybody locked up and thrown away,” he said. “And yet they don’t want to pay for that.”
And there’s also this: “Nobody hears about our success stories. There are quite a few that are successful.”
What advice would he give to an incoming judge?
“At a certain point, you need to be able to see both sides of an issue,” Erickson said.
Serving on the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles was an experience that helped him the most as a judge.
“You saw the people who needed to be in the penitentiary,” he said. “You saw the people who maybe needed to be there just for a very short period of time to get their attention before they became used to it.
“And then you saw some that shouldn’t have been there,” Erickson said.
PHOTO BY ROGER LARSEN/PLAINSMAN
South Dakota Third Circuit Court Judge Jon Erickson’s retirement after 30 years on the bench will become official today. Here, he poses in his office in the Beadle County Courthouse.