Rusch to step down from bench June 8

Arthur Rusch has served as presiding judge of the First Judicial Circuit for more than 17 years. His retirement will take effect June 8, after which time he will focus his energy on historical research, among other things. (Photo by Travis Gulbrandson)

As presiding judge of the First Judicial Court, Arthur Rusch has a busier work week than most people.

On Mondays he works on opinions and correspondence. On Tuesday he has adult court in Yankton. Wednesdays are set aside for trials in both Yankton and Vermillion. Thursdays are devoted to juvenile court in Yankton. Rusch spends each Friday in Vermillion, with adult court in the morning and juvenile in the afternoon.

Theres rarely any time where you have any extra time, he said.

That will soon change for Rusch, as he has announced his retirement, effective June 8.

Im 65 and Ive been doing this for 17 years now, so I just decided it was time to do something different, he said. Im going to take each day as it comes, I guess. All these years Ive been saying, Well, if I just had more time Id do these things. I have lot of genealogy I want to work on, I have a stamp collection I want to work on. Ill just have to see where things lead me.

A Yankton native, Rusch attended the University of South Dakota, first as an accounting major, before he turned his attention to law.

There is no event or experience to which he can attribute his interest in the subject.

It just seemed to be the thing to do, he said.

Rusch graduated from the USD School of Law in 1971. Later he was elected as states attorney in Vermillion, ultimately serving 12 years in the position.

In 1985 he went into private practice, where he stayed until 1993, when he was appointed to the circuit court by then-Gov. Walter Dale Miller.

He has been presiding judge of the First Circuit since 1995, a position that puts him in charge of management and administration of the circuit, which includes 14 southeast South Dakota counties.

Rusch also has served on the South Dakota Supreme Court for 23 different cases.

I feel like Ive had three careers now, he said.

There are personal pros and cons to his role in the legal system, he said.

Being a judge probably isnt as satisfying as representing a client and getting a good result for them, but on the other hand, you dont have to worry about meeting the overhead every month, Rusch said.

He added that the aspect of his work that he likes the most is the fact that your decisions really do count for something.

But this may also make the job more difficult.

One case in particular that Rusch mentioned in this light was the trial of Donald Moeller, who was convicted of raping and murdering 9-year-old Rebecca OConnell and sentenced to death.

Ive tried 123 jury trials during the 17 years Ive been on the bench, and thats clearly the most difficult, Rusch said. Death penalty cases are different from anything else.

The trial was held over a six-week period in Rapid City, at the request of the defense.

The state didnt really resist that, because they felt there had been so much publicity in the Sioux Falls area that it would be difficult to seat a jury there, Rusch said.

Ultimately, the trial led him to moderate his views on the death penalty.

In all the years I was a prosecutor, I would have told you I was very strongly in favor of the death penalty, but after sitting through (a death penalty trial) and seeing how expensive it was and how hard it on the jurors and everyone involved, I came away from that not as strong a supporter of the death penalty as Id been before, he said.

After Ruschs retirement takes effect, he will focus much of his attention on historical research.

Im working on a book right now on the history of courthouses in South Dakota, and have been talking to some people about working on a biography of Judge Jefferson Kidder, Rusch said.

Kidder was one of the founders of Vermillion who also donated land for the construction of USD.

He was one of the people who was very instrumental in getting the university going, Rusch said. Of course, Kidder Street is named after him.

Ruschs love of history is reflected in the Clay County Courthouse, as well.

When I first came here as a judge, we did not have any pictures of any of the prior judges here, so I got pictures of all of the prior judges who ever served here in Vermillion, and their pictures are in the courtroom, he said.

A similar undertaking now is underway to collect pictures of all the governors, senators and congressmen who came from Vermillion.

We only need Sen. Johnsons picture yet, Rusch said.

He also plans to continue to volunteer with the university, including the USD School of Law, which gave him a Volunteer Service Award last year.

Im not one to sit and do nothing, he said.

Rusch lives in Vermillion with his wife Lana. They have four grown children.

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