by Jody Kerzman
Growing up on a farm near Almont, Cynthia Feland always knew one day she’d be a lawyer.
“I knew when I was in middle school that I was going to be a lawyer,” she recalls.
Back then, she dreamed of being a corporate lawyer; contracts and corporate litigation fascinated her. She was so anxious to begin her career she even took legal courses by correspondence while still in high school. By the last semester of her undergrad studies at the University of North Dakota, Feland took her first class that dealt with the law.
“For extra credit you could go to the law school and act as a juror for a mock trial. As I sat in that courtroom and watched those law students trying their case and the judge rule from the bench, I knew that was where I wanted to be. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be in the courtroom.”
She began that career as a second year law student when she worked as a law clerk for a Grand Forks law firm. North Dakota allows a third year student to practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney. So, that’s exactly what Feland did. When she passed the bar exam, she became an associate with that same firm. She worked there for approximately two years, before deciding it was time to come home to western North Dakota.
“I had looked at different positions and decided to open my own practice. In the process of doing that, I was retained to take on the duties of Assistant State’s Attorney for Grant County,” says Feland.
She ended up running for that position and won. In Grant County, the job of state’s attorney was a part time position, so she also kept her private practice open in Mandan. In January 1999, Feland took a job as an Assistant State’s Attorney for Burleigh County, a job she held until being elected a district judge in 2010.
“It has been a great career,” says Feland. “I have had lots of opportunities that have really allowed me to gain a broad base of knowledge. I especially love trials. I loved them as an attorney, and I don’t love then any less as a judge.
“As a prosecutor, I was very fortunate to handle some very complex and challenging cases gaining invaluable experience. My favorite cases were the ones that involved forensic evidence because of the challenges they presented. To successfully handle cases involving forensic evidence, you have to become knowledgeable in that area. It was fascinating. I would immerse myself in it,” recalls Feland.
She wondered if she’d miss that when she took the bench. She quickly found out that being a judge brings a different kind of adrenaline, and a different set of challenges.
“You have to be paying attention to the details just as closely as you did as an attorney but you’re doing it with a different eye. There is nothing better than having two worthy adversaries waging battle in a courtroom where you have to ensure everyone plays by the rules and that justice prevails, that both sides get their fair day in court. Trials are not for people who want a slow pace. The courtroom is a dynamic place, it’s constantly moving, it’s challenging and that’s what I love about it.”
Criminal cases and domestic cases make up the majority of her workload, but Feland says she’s seen more guardianship cases coming through the Court system. In 2013, Feland was asked by Chief Justice VandeWalle to chair a Guardianship Workgroup tasked with looking at ways to improve how those guardianships are handled. The Guardianship Workgroup successfully sought legislative change to improve and strengthen procedures in guardianship and conservatorship cases, developed self-help forms that are available on the North Dakota Supreme Court website and is in the process of creating an online training program for guardians. It is just another one of the challenges she is happy to tackle.
Feland knows that a generation ago, her career path may have taken a different turn, simply because she’s a woman.
“There were not very many female defense attorneys when I first started. There were some female prosecutors, and we’re beginning to see more, just as we’re seeing more female judges. It’s good to see gender roles disappearing. But for me, gender has never been a factor. For me it’s always been about having the skills to be able to do a job, not about gender. “
That’s a lesson she’s worked hard to pass onto her 18 year old daughter, Christina.
“I always pushed her to try things she was interested in, despite stereotypes about who should and shouldn’t be in an activity. There’s an old adage, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ and while you might not take the path most traveled, if it’s something you really want to do, you work until find a way to make it happen.”
Feland’s eyes light up when she talks about her daughter, now a freshman at UND.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her. I’d like to take all the credit for the fabulous person I think she’s become, but I can’t. She’s had a lot of very positive influences in her life, including my parents,” says Feland. “My parents are the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. My dad still works six days a week, and honestly, I don’t know that he will ever retire. They are hardworking people, and I have tried to instill that work ethic in Christina.”
That’s just one of many other life lessons she’s worked hard to teach her daughter, lessons that she keeps in her mind each time she puts on her robe and hears a case. It is there that Cynthia Feland is making a difference in the world, one case at a time.
“I love that I’m in a position where I can really make a difference. People battling in a courtroom may not see that in the short term, but I always hope that in the future the decisions will change their lives for the better.”