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Top federal attorney in S. Dakota draws on Siouxland roots
Kingsley, Iowa, native Jim McMahon is the sole U.S. Attorney for the state of South Dakota. (Staff photo by Jim Lee)

When Jim McMahon works on plans as the top federal attorney in South Dakota, he draws on a background that includes growing up in Kingsley, Iowa, and attending Morningside College.

McMahon is one of 93 U.S. attorneys -- the chief federal law enforcement officers in their jurisdictions. He's the only U.S. attorney in South Dakota.

U.S. attorneys conduct most of the trial work to which the federal government is a party and have three statutory responsibilities -- prosecution of criminal cases brought by the federal government, prosecution and defense of civil cases in which the U.S. is a party and collection of tax debts owed the government.

There is one downside to the position, McMahon is finding out -- the trial lawyer in him laments the inability to actually try cases. The job is "more administrative work than I had ever anticipated," he said. He leads 60 employees, including 27 assistant attorneys and support staff covering three offices, including in his city of residence, Sioux Falls.

"Maybe what surprises me more than that is the amount of contact we have with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.," he said. "They do a nice job of keeping us involved in the bigger picture." That involves periodically flying to the capital. So, "I haven't been able to spend as much time as I want in trying some cases," he said. McMahon will handle a murder trial this year and perhaps some cases involving Black Hills forest fires. "I am anxious to get back into the courtroom."

Sioux Falls lawyer Scott Heidepriem has tried civil cases against McMahon. In the largest, a medical malpractice case, the jury ruled for the doctor McMahon was defending. Thus, Heidepriem phoned McMahon right after his U.S. Attorney post appointment, dryly saying he was calling "on behalf of my children, that he would be defending them, and no longer defending people that I might be bringing lawsuits against."

Heidepriem spoke of "the absolute integrity" McMahon brings to every task, "whether it is a big deal or a small deal." His opinion of McMahon, Heidepriem said, "is just about unanimous, if not unanimous. I don't know anybody that would suggest to you that he is anything but a lawyer's lawyer."

McMahon is close friends with U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow, whom he worked with in the attorney general's office in Pierre after graduating from the University of South Dakota in 1978. McMahon figures he caught the eye of federal court system officials via his highly successful law practice in Sioux Falls in the Boyce, Murphy, McDowell, Greenfield firm from 1981 to January 2002.

While he did the atypical task of representing both plaintiffs and defendants, McMahon "did a lot of defense in medical malpractice cases. I suppose I had a couple of good hits on a couple of plaintiffs' cases that made me more well known than anything else." In one early-1990s three-week spurt he ad big two wins, with jury awards of $3.6 million and $8.3 million.

Each U.S. attorney has wide discretion in the use of resources to further the priorities of his or her community, which in McMahon's case, means the entire state. Two big areas for McMahon include the fight against drugs and prosecuting crime that occurs on the reservations of nine Indian tribes in South Dakota. "That takes up a lot of time, especially my branch offices," he said. Of drugs, McMahon notes that federal enforcement includes taking on larger cartels.

Post Sept. 11, he said, terrorism is "the utmost priority of the Justice Department right now. Everything else we do takes a second seat." U.S. attorneys work closely with the FBI and other agencies with the goal of coordination, in hopes that outlying states can drum up information that may tie into terror cases that occur on the coasts. Although South Dakota is not high on terror targets, McMahon said, he gets continual briefings.

Asked if any Kingsley-Pierson High School or Morningside pals would be surprised about his accomplishments, McMahon chuckled: "Probably everyone." Expanding on that, he said, "It has been a heck of a ride and everything has seemed to fall into place for me throughout my life. I don't know why it has happened, but it has happened. Looking back on my career and our marriage, I just shake my head on how it all worked out."

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If it looks like a charmed life upward, there were times of uncertainty. The son of Marge and the late Gene McMahon of Kingsley, he said that town "was just such a great place to grow up, with the freedom of a young child to ride your bike downtown and ride it out to the creek to go fishing." After graduating from Kingsley-Pierson in 1969, as a college freshman he married his high school sweetheart, Kathy Spooner of Pierson, and they were raising the first of three children right away. Both sets of parents were supportive and stepped in to aid the young family financially when needed.

Leaving Morningside in 1973, McMahon enlisted in the Air Force with the idea of entering pilot training. But faced with the inability to become a pilot with his high-frequency hearing deficiency, McMahon left the Air Force and took business/sales jobs in Fremont, Neb., and Des Moines. "During that two-year period I was trying to figure out where to go with my life," McMahon said.

In fall 1975 he started law school at USD and he's lived in South Dakota ever since. The allure of practicing law stemmed from "my involvement in sports, which I think develops competitive drive," McMahon said. "Being a trial lawyer is one way to do that. I've always enjoyed the battle, if you will, in the courtroom."

In early 2001, Janklow asked if McMahon was interested in the federal post. McMahon wasn't at the time, but after the short tenure of an interim U.S. attorney, he submitted his name as a candidate. Attorneys are appointed by, and serve at the discretion of, the president, with advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. There were no series of questions by the Senate, but a background check was required. He was sworn in May 12, 2002, and the appointment runs for the term of President Bush.

There is a political aspect to the job, McMahon concedes. "So far I haven't been hammered, if you will, but I'm sure that opportunity is coming," McMahon said. "There will always be people who don't agree with what you do. That comes with the territory."

"I have thoroughly enjoyed the first year," McMahon said. Does he want to finish his law career as a U.S. Attorney? Said McMahon, "We'll see what happens and go with the flow."

Bret Hayworth may be reached at (712)293-4203 or brethayworth@siouxcityjournal.com

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