Rhonda Ehlis, '94, First Female Judge of the Southwest District

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News Article

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School of Law


On the eve of ending her nine-year run as Stark County's assistant state's attorney, Rhonda Ehlis said she wanted to make sure she was leaving the office "on a good no

"The people I've worked with have been some of the best people I've worked with in my entire career," she said.

Ehlis will be sworn in as the newest and first female Southwest District judge on Tuesday, with a formal ceremony taking place later in the year. The fourth judgeship was recently added by the state's Legislature earlier this year to address a rising number of cases coming through the district.

"I never, ever thought I would become a district judge," she said, adding that she always thought she would remain a lawyer until recently, when the position opened up.

"It seemed like a good time in my life to do that," she said of the decision to apply. "I think I was up for the change, up for maybe a different challenge."

Ehlis, 47, has worked as a lawyer since 1993. She lives in Dickinson with her husband and daughter, though she still speaks fondly of her hometown of Scranton, where her brother is the mayor.

Outside of her profession, one might find her at St. Patrick's Catholic Church playing the piano during Mass, a hobby she has had since the third grade.

"I like to play," she said. "It's a good stress reliever."

However, she admitted she's not as good as she used to be since work began to take up much of her time.

Ehlis said her interest in law began at the University of North Dakota, where she originally wanted to study to become a doctor. She said she was quickly disillusioned of that idea after she took a chemistry course.

Ehlis said she ended up working for Earl Strinden's 1988 campaign for the U.S. Senate, and there she met some students who were planning on going to law school. It was a possibility she never considered before, but began to make sense when she thought of her past activity in public speaking courses.

"I thought it seemed like ... a natural progression for me," she said.

Ehlis switched to a political science major and eventually attended UND's School of Law.

Since then, she has practiced law in a multitude of firms, including work as both a staff attorney and an outreach attorney for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians at the Devils Lake office of Legal Assistance (now Services) of North Dakota. She also worked at the Regional Child Support Enforcement Unit in Bismarck before moving to the private firm Hardy, Maus & Nordsven in Dickinson.

In 2006, Ehlis became one of the county's assistant state's attorneys.

"I enjoy being a lawyer," she said. "It's very stimulating, it's never dull. You can make a good living at it."

Ehlis has extensive experience practicing juvenile law, combined with civil and criminal law. Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning said this combination is part of what made her the best candidate for the judgeship.

"She's had a well-rounded practice," he said.

Henning said Ehlis has dealt with some tough cases as a prosecuting attorney, including those involving aggravated assault, drug offense and child abuse. However, he said she's handled them well and proven her worth.

"She treated the whole gamut there," Henning said.

Henning said Ehlis is "very much a team player" and a "good influence," who worked well with her colleagues and was always eager to contribute in a group effort. She's always asking questions as well, he said.

Henning said his office encouraged Ehlis to apply for the judgeship. He felt she would fit into the position naturally, saying how naturally she picked up criminal prosecution when she became an assistant state's attorney.

"I would say that of all the candidates who applied, she was the most well-rounded and the best-qualified," Henning said.

Outside of the office, he described Ehlis as an "all-American girl" who likes to take ski trips to South Dakota with her family and has traveled to Minnesota Twins games with her father.

"We're going to miss her," Henning said.

Ehlis acknowledged that she would have to adjust to being a judge after being a prosecuting attorney for so long. She said she would now have to sit in the middle and make an equitable decision, rather than arguing one side of a case.

"That sounds easy, but I don't think it's always that easy," she said.

Ehlis said now stepping into the judge's bench, she's not concerned with making people unhappy with however she rules. She said she simply hopes to make decisions based on the facts.

"I want both sides to know they're going to get a fair shot in front of me," she said.