by Deb Seminary
When Sonna Anderson went to the University of North Dakota, she thought it would be fun to get into international business and travel the world. “I then went to Norway for a year of college and realized it was a really long way from home,” she said. “I came back, finished my business degree and at the end of my senior year I was already thinking I might want to go to law school.”
She worked for Bob Wefald at the Attorney General’s office for a year, then made the decision. “My dad was an attorney, and had been States Attorney,” she explained. “I grew up with the law. Plus, he told me, ‘every day is different, it’s never boring.’
“I went to law school in Denver and found out I did not like the big city. After law school I moved back to North Dakota. My first job was with Judge Conmy. I was one of his first law clerks when he became a federal judge. After that my dad, Harold, and I had a practice together for seventeen years.”
They had a general civil practice, working on wills, estates, contracts, title opinions and more. “We really had a variety of cases,” said Anderson. “I think firms specialize a lot more now. Back then we did anything our clients needed us to do if we thought we were qualified. We also did a lot of lobbying during the legislative sessions. I did not get into the court room very often.”
Anderson began thinking becoming a judge around the turn of the century. Her father died in 2001 and after practicing alone for a few years, knowing she did not want to work for a bigger firm, she decided to take action. “I knew Judge Graff was reaching retirement age, so I positioned myself to run (for his seat),” she said. “Then he retired early, so it prompted that decision a bit sooner than I had planned.”
She was appointed to the position in December 2003 by Governor John Hoeven.
She has always had a lot of interest in public service, serving on the Bismarck School Board for ten years, and running for the House of Representatives. “I felt that being a judge would be a wonderful way to do public service.”
As for being a female judge? “I have never felt there has been a gender issue,” she said. “There have been so many other women appointed to the bench, it has been nice. There has been an increase in female lawyers and it seems there is a majority of females in the jury box. The men might feel outnumbered!”
The South Central District Judges are busy. They cover nine counties, and take turns traveling to the various courts. And, it has gotten busier over the years. “With the addition of Judge Grinsteiner, I hope it will go back to the way it was,” said Anderson. “It was busy and manageable, then it became busy and almost unmanageable. I work after 5:00 most evenings. I get most of my work done between 5:00 and 7:00. There are times I have been there until the wee hours of the morning, when I get on a roll. You work until the job is done, and try to balance family life, too.”
She met her husband, Jerry Saude, when she was teaching a Norwegian class and he was one of her students. The Scandinavian couple has two sons, Sigurd and Bjorn.
Anderson talked about some of the changes she has seen over the years: “We try primarily criminal cases, the most prevalent being a DUI. The changes in the law have made some of those cases go to trial that otherwise might have settled. The drug charges have definitely changed over the years. When I started, meth was really big and meth labs were prevalent. There was a definite decrease when the legislature put in the new laws regarding buying cold medicine. We are seeing an increase (in meth) again, not from necessarily making it here; criminals are bringing it in and bringing in many other street drugs that we didn’t really see a lot of before. There is also an increase in personal crimes, such as assaults. I don’t think people are becoming more violent, there has just been an increase in population.”
Anderson said it may be harder for someone to get a civil trial scheduled because there are so many criminal trials going on. It could be twelve to fifteen months before a divorce trial or child custody case gets to trial. That is a difficult thing because families need resolution. But, for the most part, civil matters get bumped for criminal matters.
If a judge does not agree with the jury’s verdict, she may have the option of over turning the verdict. It does not happen very often, since the system is set up for the jury to decide the cases. “I trust the jurors to make a good decision, but there was one time when I overturned a verdict on a criminal case,” said Anderson. “At the end of the trial I felt there was an element the state did not prove. It was appealed and I was affirmed. Lawyers can also ask a judge to overturn a jury verdict, called a ‘motion for judgement notwithstanding the verdict.’
“There are times when a trial can be like a CSI episode and I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I don’t know how the witness is going to testify, and sometimes the trial can just take a 180 degree turn, and I think, ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming!’”
Anderson said that people come into the court room with different expectations. Sometimes when she talks to jurors after a trial, they are surprised the evidence isn’t laid out like it is on television. “Most of the time jurors have liked the process, it can be challenging but rewarding.”
There are many rewards for Anderson, as well. One day, after filling her car with gas, the person behind the counter asked Anderson if she remembered him. He explained she had sent him to prison and it was the best thing that happened to him. He went through treatment, is in recovery, got married, went to college and reconnected with his family, but told her he wouldn’t have done any of it if she had not sent him to prison.
“Imposing an appropriate sentence can be a challenge. Drugs can take hold of a good person and lead them into a criminal episode, which may result in prison time. ”
While she is ‘just doing her job,’ she is making a big difference in our communities and in the lives of many.