ABERDEEN — When he isn’t presiding on the bench, Circuit Judge Gregg Magera can likely be found performing in an orchestra pit.
Gov. Kristi Noem recently appointed Magera, a Yankton native who has been serving as a magistrate judge in Aberdeen, as the new Fifth Circuit judge for 10 counties in north-central and northeastern South Dakota.
“As a circuit court judge, I will now handle felony criminal and various civil matters,” he said. “I may also continue to cover drug and DUI (driving under the influence) court.”
He succeeds Scott Myren, who Noem appointed to the South Dakota Supreme Court in January.
“I am humbled and honored for the opportunity to serve as a Circuit Court Judge,” Magera said.
Magera and his wife, Barbara, live in Aberdeen and have been married 26 years. They have two grown daughters, Emily and Katie.
So where does the orchestra pit fit into his life?
Magera plays violin with the Aberdeen University Civic Symphony. In addition, he has played for the Aberdeen Community Theater (ACT) for productions, including “Young Frankenstein.”
One musical performance took him to Japan as part of a family experience.
His daughter, Emily, played the role of a duckling in the production of “Honk.” The production advanced through the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) Festival’s state, regional and national competitions.
“Honk” placed third at the 2007 National AACT Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina. The production was invited to represent the United States at the 2008 World Festival of Children’s Performing Arts in Toyama, Japan.
“Once they learned I would be traveling with Emily, I was asked to play in the pit for the performance in Japan,” Gregg explained.
A STRONG FOUNDATION
A 1983 graduate of Yankton High School, Magera earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of South Dakota. Following service as a law clerk, he joined Siegel, Barnett & Schultz in Aberdeen in 1991, where he became a partner and practiced until his appointment as magistrate judge in March 2019.
Magera, the son of Bill and the late Irene Magera, developed his passion for law and music while growing up in Yankton.
“I always had an interest in the law,” he said. “During undergraduate education at USD, that interest continued and, after graduation in 1987, I applied and was accepted to the USD Law School.”
Magera credits his Yankton upbringing as providing an important foundation for his personal and professional lives.
“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Yankton, (which) has such a strong sense of community. A good work ethic and community service were emphasized while growing up in Yankton,” he said.
“I worked in the Gurney Seed and Nursery fields several summers and was a painter for high school teacher Loy Gravholt. I enjoyed playing tennis and violin while in high school. I also participated in oral interpretation and a couple of plays.”
Other experiences also shaped his life.
“I was a lector at Sacred Heart Church,” he said. “I (also) enjoyed time with friends and all the outdoor activities Yankton offers at Lake Yankton, Lewis and Clark Lake and the Missouri River.”
In addition, Magera credits the mentorship he received at USD for both his undergraduate and law degrees.
“Given that I had an interest in the law and that South Dakota only has one law school (at USD), it was a good fit,” he said. “The professors provided an excellent education that prepared students for the practice of law. The professors also stressed public service to your community.”
His time in Yankton and Vermillion provided fertile ground for honing his passion for the arts. He credited the late Dr. J. Laiten Weed and his wife, the late Lucy Weed, with nurturing his passion for music.
The Weeds were both noted string players and teachers. A music professor and violinist, Laiten served as longtime director of the Yankton College Conservatory of Music. Lucy served in the Yankton schools, teaching string lessons and directing orchestras for students in fourth grade through high school.
“I cannot thank Dr. J. Laiten Weed and Lucy Weed enough. I studied with Dr. Weed and Lucy for many years. They, along with my parents, instilled in me a love of music and the violin,” Magera said.
“Dr. Weed and Lucy took me to hear internationally-known violinist Eugene Fodor in Sioux City and I was hooked. He was amazing. I was able to meet him and carry my signed program from that concert in my violin case to this day.”
Magera continued his musical interests to Vermillion, playing in the USD orchestra as an undergraduate and while in law school.
He established his law practice in Aberdeen and also pursued his musical interests. He has played with the Aberdeen University Civic Symphony for many years, performing with guest artists such as the rock group Kansas, Mark and Maggie O’Connor, and Rachel Barton Pine.
“I have also started to learn how to play the mandolin and a little bit of accordion,” he said. “My parents both have very strong Czech heritage. We go to Tabor Czech Days every year and even have danced with the Beseda dancers.”
Magera finds music relaxing for what can be a stressful position as judge.
“It’s a great outlet. I try to practice some time each day — if time allows,” he said. “My dad is a very fine musician who began playing music again after (my) mom had passed away. He played with the Bumble Bees music group and has played for several years with Mount Marty (University’s) symphonic and pep bands. He also plays in Tabor’s 1890 band.”
ORDER IN THE COURT
In terms of his judgeship, Magera remains in transition mode for now. He began his circuit court duties March 9 but currently continues to hear magistrate cases.
“I have begun adding some circuit duties to my calendar until a new magistrate judge is appointed,” he said.
In any courtroom, all participants in the process are expected to be treated with dignity, Magera said.
“Everyone in the court system is reminded that, to the individuals that appear before us, their case is the most important thing that may be going on in their lives,” the judge said. “I want to ensure that everyone in my courtroom is respected and heard.”
As presiding judge at the time, Myren (now on the South Dakota Supreme Court) appointed Magera as a magistrate judge in the Fifth Circuit.
“A magistrate judge handles mostly misdemeanor offenses and felony offenses up to the point of a preliminary hearing or initial appearance following an indictment,” Magera said. “A magistrate judge also handles small claims court and requests for protection orders that do not involve children.”
As a magistrate judge, Magera not only gained experience on the bench but also learned more about the Fifth Circuit. Those courts are served by four circuit judges and one magistrate who covers Brown, Campbell, Day, Edmunds, Faulk, Marshall, McPherson, Roberts, Spink and Walworth counties.
When Myren was named to the South Dakota Supreme Court, Magera applied for the vacant circuit judge position. The Judicial Qualifications Committee reviews all applications and, if found to be qualified, the applicant’s name is then submitted to the governor for consideration.
Magera participated in an interview with Noem and some of her staff. He was later contacted and advised the governor had appointed him as a circuit court judge.
Magera has learned importance qualities when ruling from the bench.
“To be a good judge, you have to do two things and do them equally well,” he said. “You must be willing to make a tough decision when one needs to be made, and you cannot second-guess yourself. Decisions are based on the law and the facts of each individual case.”
Despite the demands, Magera said he finds pleasure in his new role.
“There is a great deal of responsibility in the position,” he said. “I am enjoying the challenges of the new duties. There have been no surprises. I enjoy working with people and strive to make sure everyone is respected.”
As a magistrate judge, Magera has learned how to handle a heavy caseload.
“It is not uncommon in magistrate court to have 35-75 cases scheduled during a morning or afternoon court session,” he said.
“In my new position (as circuit judge), I will be traveling to Ipswich, Leola, Selby and Mound City. It’s challenging covering other counties but, with advances in technology, we are able to have court even if I am not able to travel due to weather.”
The pandemic has created new challenges and regulations surrounding the judicial system, Magera said.
“There has been a moratorium on jury trials in our circuit, but as more vaccines are distributed, we hope to be able to schedule jury trials in the near future,” he said. “Masks are not mandatory but are encouraged.”
When out in the community, Magera separates his professional and personal lives.
“When I am at (orchestra) rehearsal, I’m just Gregg, not Judge Magera,” he said. “I have had some folks appear before me (in court) that I know. I acknowledge that I know them and ask them and the state (prosecution) if they have any objection to me presiding over the case. It hasn’t been an issue.”
Magera also enjoys spending time with family and friends. Of their two daughters, Katie works as a deaf education teacher in Harrisburg while Emily recently graduated from the University of Sioux Falls.
“I play tennis, and I play violin in the Aberdeen University Civic Symphony. I also enjoy fishing and hunting,” he said. “My dad, Bill, lives in Yankton and we try to visit him as often as we can. I have two brothers who live in Minnesota and a sister who lives in Tennessee.”
While he has taken on a new judicial role, Magera plans to continue his musical pursuits.
“I plan on continuing to play. I also play in the pit orchestra for Aberdeen Community Theater productions,” he said. “I hope to continue that as time allows.”
Whatever the pursuit, Magera said he seeks continual improvement in his life.
“I look forward to the challenges of circuit court,” he said. “I strive to be a better person and judge every day.”
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