Life is changing for Thomas Schneider, a state judge retiring after 38 years on the bench.
The last day for South Central District Judge Thomas Schneider was Thursday. He’s been a judge since 1982.
Schneider has handled cases involving everything from traffic tickets and red light violations to medical malpractice and murder. Defendants have reacted to his sentences with letters of thanks, expressions of gratitude made in person, and at times death threats.
It’s been “a pretty rewarding career,” Schneider said -- one that’s lasted long enough that three generations of some families have come through his courtroom.
“I said when I start seeing the fourth generation it’s time to retire,” he said.
Schneider’s time on the bench started in 1982 when he became municipal judge in Mandan. He later added judicial referee duties, and in 1986 he became a judge for Morton, Grant and Sioux counties. He was elected to his current job as South Central District judge in 1994. He’s been reelected every six years since. He's based in Mandan but also hears cases in Bismarck.
As a county judge he presided over a case regarding the homeschooling of children. The issue was new to North Dakota at the time, and the courtroom was packed every day during the weeklong trial.
“It was a question of parental rights, religious freedom, the state’s authority,” Schneider said. “Over the years the parties did come together to set rules and regulations regarding homeschooling.”
A murder case also stands out in his memory, though out of respect he’s careful not to mention names connected to it. Some of the people involved are still around, he said, and he doesn’t want to risk reviving bad memories for them.
He shows a similar respect to everyone in his courtroom, said Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer, who has tried cases in front of Schneider since 2000.
“He doesn’t talk down to people,” Lawyer said. “He’ll tell them what they need to hear, but he’s never condescending.”
A judge’s job can be stressful, especially in high-profile cases, but it’s also rewarding, Schneider said. One day after a number of initial appearances were completed, one woman remained in the courtroom. Schneider had previously ordered her to undergo substance abuse treatment. She was successful, and she had come to thank him.
“She said she probably would never have gone if somebody didn’t force her to go,” he said.
Other defendants were less gracious. Schneider has had his life threatened more than once.
“You talk to the sheriff’s department and ask them to keep an eye out for a certain individual,” he said.
A judge’s career is “quite a learning situation,” Schneider said. Judges have to be fair to whomever is in front of them, which at times means simply listening to the evidence and putting aside the personalities in the courtroom. He’s enjoyed seeing the various approaches attorneys have used in cases.
“I could always tell when somebody just went to some sort of trial seminar,” he said. “Here comes something new.”
Attorneys have changed over the years too, with fewer actively seeking jury trials and more of them arguing among themselves in the courtroom.
“It seems like certain attorneys just have a conflict with each other,” he said.
As Schneider gained experience on the bench, he could more easily read defendants based on how they reacted to a sentence.
“You can tell who’s been through the system a few times,” he said. “You can tell who’s really sincere and who’s just telling you what you want to hear.”
Schneider in retirement plans to travel with his wife, Rita. He’s also learning more languages in an effort to more effectively communicate when the two visit countries in Europe.
Overall, for a career that “just kind of evolved,” Schneider said, “it’s been pretty rewarding.”
The Morton County Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to name Courtroom 305 in the courthouse in honor of Schneider.
“Judge Schneider was a staple to the North Dakota judiciary,” Commissioner Andy Zachmeier said. “We greatly appreciate his many years of service, as well as his professional demeanor in working with Morton County staff, myself and the citizens of Morton County. He has done an amazing job and we will truly miss him.”
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com