Benning sought job for someone else, stayed in court position 38 years
By GALE PIFER, Sports Editor
When Tony Benning walked into the Lake County Courthouse that day many years ago, he wasn't looking for a job. He was obtaining information about the possibility of a job for someone else.|
Two positions were being advertised. One was a court service officer, the other the clerk of courts.
At that time, Benning was working for the South Dakota Job Service Department. It was his responsibility to find jobs for other people.
"I talked to Judge Thomas Anderst," said Benning.
Anderst was then the local circuit court judge, and he explained what both jobs entailed.
As Benning got ready to leave the judge's chambers on the third floor of the courthouse, Anderst said, "Why don't you consider taking the clerk of courts position?"
"I hadn't given it a thought," said Benning, "but what the heck? Maybe I should consider it."
That started Benning's career in the court system which spanned 38 years and ended Monday. When he called it quits, Benning was administrator of the Third Judicial Circuit, a sprawling judicial circuit covering 14 counties with more than 80 employees.
On his first day in 1975, Benning's official title was clerk magistrate. A reorganization of the state court system had eliminated the old justice of the peace post and replaced it with clerk magistrates. It was the job of clerk magistrates not only to handle the many duties of running local court systems, such as keeping track of mountains of paperwork, but also to serve as judge for persons charged with traffic offenses and misdemeanors.
"I remember well my first day in court," smiled Benning. "I talked with Bob Spencer, who was then city attorney, at the conclusion of court. I told him I felt like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
Little if any formal instruction had been given to many like Benning who were stepping into what essentially was the role of a judge, even though the cases they heard were mainly small charges like traffic violations.
"There wasn't even a uniform list of fines for like offenses then," said Benning. "`Aw, do the best you can', was Spencer's advice."
Eventually, as part of the court reorganization process, a bond schedule was set so that a judge in Rapid City would impose the same fine for a like offense as Benning did in Madison.
"That was a big improvement," said Benning.
Under the old magistrate system, a justice of the peace salary was based on the amount of court costs he levied.
Benning wasn't the only new face in the courthouse. Dallas Johnson was hired as a court service officer and Wilson Kleibacker, a young lawyer, became Lake County State's Attorney.
Soon the job accelerated so that the clerk magistrate was charged with setting bonds and even holding preliminary hearings. Benning was a quick study and soon became comfortable in the job, if you can ever be comfortable handing down judgments against people who've broken the law.
"Of course, I had the advice of several seasoned lawyers in the community," smiled Benning, naming J.H. Lammers, L.F. Ericsson and Carl Bohn. "They weren't a bit shy about giving advice."
Question: Did you enjoy your career in the judicial system?
Without a moment's hesitation, Benning said, "Yes, you can't be in this business for almost 40 years if you didn't enjoy it."
He said sometimes lawyers get a bad rap from the public.
"They do their level best to represent their clients. Lawyers don't get to pick and choose the evidence of a case, nor do they sometimes even get to pick the person they represent. Some people's expectations of the law today are different. Some people actually think Judge Judy knows what she is talking about.
``Attorneys, law enforcement officers, court service workers and the entire legal system work together not only to protect the community from wrong doers but also to insure that the rights of those accused of a crime are treated fairly," Benning said. "In my day-to-day association with those people, I've got a great deal of respect and admiration for the job they do. And I have been privileged to work with a wonderful group of people in all aspects of the court and legal system. In this country, we have a legal system that is the envy of the entire world."
Benning said in his role with the courts, he has seen many changes, like today's emphasis on cameras in the courtroom and other technical advances.
"Today people can pay fines by credit card, for instance. I also believe working with the media is tougher than it used to be, mainly because of the technological advances," he said.
But Benning doesn't think the role of the court reporter will revert soon to an all electronic system, like recording court testimony.
"We will handle paperwork in a new way, but changes like the role of a court reporter are a long ways off," Benning said.
Benning grew up in Tulare, where he and his wife Crystal attended high school. He attended college in Madison; she attended school in Aberdeen and got a teaching degree from Dakota State College. They married in 1970.
Benning taught history and social studies for two years at McLaughlin while his wife taught English and German before returning to Madison. She taught one year in Oldham and then taught in Colman before having a long career in Madison schools. She'll also retire this spring.
Question: How's retirement?
"Darned if I know," Benning smiled. "Today it seems like a Saturday."
Benning said he doesn't have firm plans for his retirement. The couple has children living in Texas and Massachusetts, so travel and keeping up with grandchildren will become a priority.
"A friend gave me some advice," he said: "`Don't schedule anything in the morning because then you won't have something to do in the afternoon'."