Misty Nehring, '12, Back Home as Williston’s Top Public Defender

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News Article

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Campus Unit

School of Law


For the past three years, the unknown has been a constant for Misty Nehring.

Never staying in one place for long, she’s in and out of courtrooms, visiting inmates behind bars, traveling from county to county, and defending people of all ages as they make their way through the justice system.

Nehring, 29, was recently promoted to supervising attorney at the Williston Public Defender’s Office after spending almost the entirety of her relatively short legal career there.

“I feel like I’ve been practicing for a lifetime,” she said. “It’s amazing to me how much I’ve learned in three years.”

The Williston native returned to her hometown to work in the public defender’s office as an intern after earning her law degree in 2012. The young attorney was hired on as a temporary staff member, until a decision in the last legislative session made her position permanent.

Her Oct. 1 promotion came one day after Daniel El-Dweek, who’d occupied the top spot in the office for two years, was sworn in as a McKenzie County judge.

Now Nehring and her staff of two attorneys, Kathleen Kelly and Pablo Sartorio, serve people who have gotten into trouble with the law and can’t afford a lawyer. Their work covers a broad spectrum, ranging from criminal cases to juvenile matters, custody battles and traffic violations.

Keeping up with the work

Within the past five years, a ballooning population in the northwest region of the state has led to an uptick in the number of Class A and Class AA felony charges — the most serious criminal allegations in the state — which typically include murder, rape, child sexual abuse and drug trafficking. In the Williston area, cases involving methamphetamine are routine, and theft and weapons charges are on the rise, Nehring said.

In 2011, eight Class A and Class AA felonies were assigned to public defenders in the Northwest Judicial District, made up of Williams, McKenzie and Divide counties. That total has seen a sharp increase, hitting 84 during the 2015 fiscal year.

The caseload has grown just as fast, jumping from about 600 four years ago to just shy of 1,800 in the last fiscal year.

Most public defense cases in the district are assigned to the Williston office, said Jean Delaney, executive director of the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigent Defense.

To help lighten the load on the office here, the state opened a public defender’s office in Watford City about a year ago. “We don’t want our attorneys overworked,” Delaney said.

The agency provides another level of support by keeping a close eye on the number of clients served by the office. The agency’s guidelines stipulate about a 240-case yearly maximum for each attorney, or about 20 cases per month, Nehring said.

If cases start piling up or a conflict arises, she distributes them within a network of local attorneys in private practice who regularly take on pro bono work.

“We are never without support,” Nehring said.

Although each case presents unique challenges, the goal is always to arrive at a favorable, and informed, outcome. Mitigating the consequences of a bad decision is foremost, Nehring said, pointing out that a felony conviction can be devastating to young people especially, who often are applying for jobs or student loans.

“Anytime someone has a legal problem it follows them around like a heavy rain cloud,” she said. Defense attorneys explain options to clients, and how the consequences will affect them.

“More often than not we’re able to get really great outcomes,” Nehring said.

Maintaining a positive focus

The work lends itself to a number of roles. Nehring finds herself a confidant, defender and counselor at different times, and despite often being let in on some dark secrets, she is far from judgemental.

“People have to tell me uncomfortable and awkward things that they may not tell anyone else,” she said. “When I look at it, I don’t ascertain a person’s worth based on one mistake. More often than not I find that people are far better than the worst thing they’ve ever done. There’s always something good to be found in every person. I haven’t found one client who’s proved me wrong yet, and as a public defender I hope I never do.”

Her quick smile and friendly demeanor in the courtroom seem to reassure nervous people awaiting hearings, and it’s that sort of presence she strives to maintain. Rewards are greatest, “anytime I’m able to negotiate a client’s rights, anytime I’m able to see a child returned to their family...for me, any positive impact I can have on my clients.”

Despite long hours and a never-ending caseload, Nehring exudes gratitude. “I get to come into contact with so many amazing people each day,” she said, listing her co-workers, attorneys across the state and judges as sources of support and inspiration.

“It’s really kind of the golden age to be practicing law here, with the quality of attorneys we’re attracting,” she said. “I am constantly surrounded by people who recognize how important it is for everyone to be represented.”

The work has even allowed her to argue in front of the state’s Supreme Court, an experience Nehring describes as “probably the most surreal I’ve had as an attorney.”

The Williston High graduate majored in Spanish at Minot State University before earning her law degree from the University of North Dakota. Things came full circle with an internship at the public defender’s office here, and although she’d never considered going into criminal defense, the work drew her in almost immediately.

“I’ve spent so much of my life wanting to be a lawyer,” Nehring said. “I’m so grateful to be able to get up every day and love what I do, and I hope I’m making the community a better place.”