District’s first black judge ‘proud to be first’ | Region

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — As he prepares to take the bench in a few weeks, Robert Tiefenthaler reflects on experiences from years ago that will shape the kind of judge he hopes to be.

The only person of color in his hometown and school and a self-proclaimed fat boy, he was a constant target of bullies. He responded to nicknames that he didn’t realize were racist until he was older and understood what people, including some family members, called him.

This led to high school bouts of depression and therapy sessions. He finally decided that no one could stop people from picking on him, so he would stop them.

“Since my freshman year in high school, I’ve strived to be the best at everything I’ve done,” Tiefenthaler told the Sioux City Journal. “My goal was to be the best, because when you’re number one nobody can laugh at you.”

On Sept. 1, Tiefenthaler, 53, of Sergeant Bluff, will become the first black district court judge in Iowa’s Third Judicial District.

“I am proud to be the first. I hope I’m not the last,” he said.

Tiefenthaler also hopes that his background, not just as a person of color, but also as a victim of hate crime and someone with close experience with addiction and mental illness, will help those who stand before him believe. that they received a fair hearing.

“I think I’m a person who has crossed cultural boundaries and had experiences that will shape the way I view cases,” Tiefenthaler said. “I hope everyone who leaves my courtroom feels like they’ve been treated fairly.”

He drew on these experiences to identify with his clients during his years as a private attorney who practiced family law, personal injury, minors and workers’ compensation and labor law. criminal defence.

These experiences began 10 days after he was born in Sioux City and adopted by Bonnie and Dean Tiefenthaler, a white couple from Breda in Carroll County, where he worked on the family farm and hauled gravel during his summers. to college for his father’s trucking. company. He was a gifted singer, and at Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll, he learned that he also had a gift for speaking and arguing, honing all of those skills in musicals, speeches, and debates.

Yet he was the only black student at school, and his lighter complexion made it difficult for him to identify himself, even when others called him by names.

This helped fuel that competitive desire to be the best, and he attended the University of South Dakota, majoring in criminal justice and political science as an undergrad before earning his law degree there in 1994. While in college, he met other black students and learned more about a culture that he was still unsure of applying to him due to uncertainty about where he came from.

That uncertainty eased after he got in touch with his birth parents, Louise Jenn and James Fenceroy, while he was in college. The relationship he developed with his biological parents, who both live in Sioux City, and their families helped him answer questions about his own identity. They joined his adoptive family when he graduated from law school and will do so again at his September 23 swearing-in ceremony, along with his wife, Brenda, with whom he has two children and six grandchildren.

Tiefenthaler credits his paralegal, Barbara Renfro, who has been with him since he opened his own practice in 1999, for helping him develop compassion for the underdog. The many court-appointed clients he’s had over the years have taught him how much drug addiction and mental illness can be responsible for criminal behavior, showing that crimes aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface. He was sometimes frustrated with how the justice system did not always take the extra step to order services that could have addressed the issues that led to his clients’ criminal behaviors.

“Justice doesn’t come in a pretty package in every case,” Tiefenthaler said. “I now have the power to do something about it.”

He laughs when acquaintances tell him he’s crazy for giving up an income as a private lawyer and taking on the added responsibilities of a judge. Tiefenthaler said they didn’t understand.

“I felt a higher calling to do this. If I’m in it for the money, I’m in it for the wrong reasons,” he said. “I just wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. .”

Now he will be more likely to do so. He can order offenders to undergo drug treatment or therapy that could improve their lives.

His experience as a victim of two separate hate crime assaults, he said, also helps him understand how victims are affected by the offenders who will appear before him.

“My judicial philosophy is that I think everyone should have their day in court,” Tiefenthaler said. “The courtroom is supposed to be a place where everyone feels like they’ve been treated the same.”

Coming from someone who knows what it feels like to be mistreated just because of how you look, that’s a strong statement that comes from experience.

The experience that will help guide his decisions and benefit those who come into his courtroom.