Midwest Law Talk is back with another episode, this time featuring North Dakota’s United States attorney, Mac Schneider.
Some topics discussed in this episode include:
- Mac Schneider’s background, including his time serving as a North Dakota Senator
- The national fentanyl epidemic and its impact on North Dakota
- The civil division of the United States Attorney’s Office, and how they are involved in major civil rights cases
- The most recent updates to the Alfonso Rodriguez death penalty verdict
You can also find a transcript of the podcast below:
Joseph Wetch: Hello and welcome to Midwest Law Talk. I’m your host Joseph Wetch. I’m a Minneapolis lawyer, practicing in the civil dispute space. Today on the podcast is North Dakota’s United States attorney Mac Schneider. Mac was previously in private practice with the Schneider law firm until 2022 when the president selected him to his current post and he was confirmed by the Senate. Mac, welcome to Midwest Law Talk.
Mac Schneider: Joe, thanks so much for having me on the podcast.
Joseph Wetch: Yeah, Mac, it’s a pleasure to have you on. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about your background leading to becoming the United States attorney for the District of North Dakota? You went to law school at Georgetown and had a successful private practice and served some time in the North Dakota legislature. So give us a little bit of your background.
Mac Schneider: Yeah, that’s right, Joe. North Dakota, born and raised. I was born in Fargo, went to Fargo South High School and attended the University of North Dakota. Fortunate enough to play football there every now and again, whenever they’d let me play and just received a great education in the history department. After that, I moved to Washington DC for a couple of years and went to Georgetown Law School, as you mentioned. But prior to that I worked on the Hill for North Dakota’s member of Congress, Earl Pomeroy, who was representing North Dakota in the House at the time. And after I graduated from law school, I was living in Grand Forks, ran for the state senate, and was elected in 2008. That was the same year that I was admitted to practice law in North Dakota and was fortunate enough to serve two terms, four sessions in the state senate representing just a fantastically cool legislative district at Grand Forks District 42, home to the University of North Dakota.
I did that for eight years and I have been living in my hometown Fargo since 2018. My wife (her name is Crystal) we’ve been together since about her junior year, my senior year of high school. We’ve got two kids in Fargo public schools. And prior to joining the US Attorney’s Office, as you mentioned, I was in private practice. I practice at my family’s law firm, uniquely named Schneider, Schneider and Schneider after Mark, John and Steve Schneider, my dad and my two uncles who started the firm. And since December 12th, I’ve been just extraordinarily proud to be in the US Attorney’s Office here and it is just a tremendous professional privilege and a real honor and responsibility to do this job and I’m thankful to have it.
Joseph Wetch: Yeah, and I guess you could be characterized as the top federal law enforcement official in North Dakota. Federally, I mean your counterpart in the state would be Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who we’ve had on the podcast by the way. So, you must have a pretty good handle on criminal issues facing North Dakota in general, but also region-wide in the South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota area, the states that border North Dakota, wouldn’t you?
Mac Schneider: Well, yeah, North Dakota’s a wonderful place to live, generally a very safe state, but unfortunately, we’re not immune from some of these trends that are happening nationally. And one of those is the fentanyl epidemic. It was just an extraordinarily serious situation. As you may know, Joe, in 2022, the DEA seized 57.9 million fentanyl laced pills. That’s equivalent to more than 400 million lethal doses of fentanyl. So, in other words, Joe, the amount that the DEA has seized is enough to kill every American and then some, and that’s just the amount that the DEA was able to take off the street. So that’s stunning to me.
And this terrible drug is found its way in North Dakota. Just to give you the 2021 numbers, there are 131 drug overdose deaths in North Dakota that year just relative to traffic deaths, there were 101 of those. So, drug overdoses and drug poisonings are killing more people than traffic fatalities. Another data point to provide some perspective, 17 murders in 2021 compared to 131 drug overdoses. So, this is something that is just roiling our communities and it is something that as the chief federal law enforcement officer, we’re working as closely as we possibly can with our state, local, federal, tribal, law enforcement partners to get a handle on that. But it’s a huge challenge facing North Dakota and the country as a whole.
Joseph Wetch: Where is the fentanyl coming from, Mac? Is it coming from China?
Mac Schneider: Yes, China by way of Mexico, and primarily two cartels that are shipping this poison across the border into larger urban centers within the United States. And then it’s making its way into places as far-flung as rural North Dakota. And one thing that we’ve seen in this office is this pipeline from the Detroit area to reservations throughout the state. Just last summer, two of our prosecutors, Lori Conroy and Don Deets, prosecuted Operation Blue Prairie, is the name of the operation, and prosecuted a number of defendants, two of whom received a 30-year prison sentences for the role in targeting North Dakota reservations.
And that was actually with oxycodone. Oxycodone is no longer the big issue facing North Dakota in the country. It’s fentanyl, but these organized criminal elements that are really targeting Indian country and tribal communities because they know that there are law enforcement challenges there in terms of being short-staffed. The partners that we have in our tribal communities are fantastic. It is just, unfortunately, there aren’t as many as we would like of them. And so that is something that we are trying to be a strong federal partner on when it comes to making sure that our tribal communities are not attractive targets to those who are trying to ship this poison into our state and profit from it.
Joseph Wetch: I had no idea that the DEA took so much off the street, and I share your statement that that’s just staggering that there must be double that or more on the streets.
Mac Schneider: Yes, and unfortunately, I think doubling that is probably conservative. So, it is a huge challenge and something that we are trying to bring every federal resource to bear upon. I know it’s a priority for the Attorney General, as well, and it’s certainly a priority for state, local and tribal law enforcement who are just great partners in fighting this horrible drug.
Joseph Wetch: So not only do you have a role in criminal matters facing North Dakota and the region, but you also have a role as the United States attorney in civil matters as well, don’t you?
Mac Schneider: Yeah, that’s correct. We have a civil division with a bunch of incredibly talented attorneys here that defend the United States when it’s sued. And so whether that’s under the Federal Tort Claims Act, whether it’s the situation where law enforcement, a federal law enforcement officer is accused of excessive use of force or a medical malpractice claim arising out of treatment at a Veteran’s Administration facility, those are all cases that are defended by our office when the claims arise in the District of North Dakota and those civil division attorneys, they’re sort of an untold story, but just work incredibly hard defending the United States against claims. And as someone who used to sue the United States every now and again, Joe, I could tell you that’s a full-time job and then some. But they not only defend the United States when it’s sued, they also bring affirmative civil rights enforcement cases. And so, the prosecution element of the United States Attorney’s Office, obviously it’s critically important, but that civil division and the work that they do, that’s very important work on behalf of the United States, as well.
Joseph Wetch: So, they’re the people that are responsible for bringing the civil rights actions?
Mac Schneider: Yes, our office has a great track record of that. Administration in, administration out, our civil division has brought civil rights cases involving housing discrimination, disability discrimination, and may not always get the headlines when it comes to those types of cases, but really make a big difference in people’s lives. I was just thinking of the settlement that was reached in a previous administration in the past relating to reintegrating developmentally disabled individuals into the community in an Olmsted case, is what it’s called. And that really has the potential to change lives. And so couldn’t be prouder of our civil division. Obviously, we’ve got some exceptional criminal prosecutors, as well. And that’s really what makes this office very special is that you have subject matter experts on civil law, criminal law, and virtually every sub-part of those two types of law that you could imagine. So, it’s an incredible honor to work with attorneys that have that kind of experience and that kind of talent.
Joseph Wetch: So, in terms of civil rights matters would, for example, Derek Chauvin and anybody that has read a newspaper or watched television in the last two or three years knows the case of George Floyd that took place here in Minneapolis. And that event really shook Minneapolis to the core. As a new transplant in Minneapolis I still see the effects of it in downtown Minneapolis, and for a civil rights prosecution or claim against Derek Chauvin, is that something that your office would lead from your civil perspective or I know it would be done in the district of Minnesota, but is that something that the US attorney’s civil division would do?
Mac Schneider: Yeah, obviously a tragic case that has had wide-ranging impact in Minnesota and across the country, really across the world. Fortunately, hopefully there’s never a situation like that in North Dakota, but certainly if there is, there would be various civil actions that could be taken and then violation of criminal statutes, as well. The Department of Justice, as you may know, Joe, it was founded during reconstruction in the period following the Civil War and its purpose initially was to protect the civil rights that were guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. And so that, that’s a heritage that the Department of Justice takes very seriously, and that’s something that’s a legacy we want to live up to. The mission of the Department of Justice starts with upholding the rule of law, keeping our country safe, and also protecting civil rights. And the Attorney General’s been very clear that not any one of those three parts of the mission statement is more important than the other two. So, we take protecting civil rights very seriously and I’m very proud of the track record that this office has long before I arrived as US Attorney when it comes to protecting the civil rights of North Dakotans.
Joseph Wetch: I’d like to switch gears a little bit, and since you brought up the Attorney General, I’d like to talk about the Attorney General a little bit. What’s your relationship with the Attorney General? Do you speak with him or communicate with him? Does he give you direction about how he wants the office of the United States attorney for the District of North Dakota to be run? Or how does it work?
Mac Schneider: Well, I had the privilege to meet the Attorney General in Washington DC. There was an orientation for about 14 of us, newly sworn in United States attorneys, and he spoke with all of us at the main justice building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. And what’s very clear is that the values of the Department of Justice, things like independence and impartiality, honesty, integrity, respect, excellence, and commitment to the work that we do here, those aren’t just words. Those are things that he has lived by throughout the course of his career, and that is what he demands of United States attorneys and everyone that works at the Department of Justice. I had the opportunity to speak with him at that orientation about issues affecting Indian country and issues affecting tribal communities in North Dakota. And it’s an honor to work in this department and an honor to be able to take direction from the main Justice, and obviously that’s led by the Attorney General himself.
Joseph Wetch: So, I’d like to talk to you about the Dru Sjodin and Alfonso Rodriguez case. Just as a way of background for our listeners. The Dru Sjodin case happened I think in about 1990 or 2002, I think, where a young co-ed was kidnapped from a mall parking lot in Grand Forks, North Dakota, by Alfonso Rodriguez and was murdered. He went to trial, was prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office under a different administration and was convicted. Judge Ralph Erickson imposed the death penalty and on appeal, I think it was upheld. And recently your office announced that you would not be seeking the death penalty, and I was just wondering what your thoughts were about that?
Mac Schneider: Yeah, this is a case that our office has, as you recognize, long been involved with. And throughout the course of the last 20 years, we’ve grown close to the Sjodin family. They are truly good people who have suffered an unspeakable tragedy and met with Linda Walker personally at her home when we received the direction from the Attorney General to withdraw the notice of intention to seek a penalty of death, spoke with Alan Sjodin, Dru’s father, on the phone at Ms. Walker’s home. And that was a difficult conversation, but what shines through is their integrity, their strength, and our office just continues to wish them the greatest measure of peace possible.
And so, in terms of the legal issue here, Joe, under the Justice Manual, the United States Attorney’s Office is directed to continue with the case as initially instructed by the Attorney General. And so we were proceeding in the wake of Judge Erickson’s decision to proceed with another penalty phase trial relating to the death penalty. In mid-March, just last month, the Attorney General directed me very straightforwardly to withdraw the notice of intention to seek penalty of death. And that is what this office did under the Justice Manual. This is a decision that is in the hands of the Attorney General and he made his decision, and our office was bound by that.
Joseph Wetch: I see. I didn’t realize it was the Attorney General’s decision.
Mac Schneider: Yeah, it’s very clear under the Justice Manual, which really directs our work here in the US Attorney’s office and in every US attorney’s office throughout the country, that the ultimate decision rests with the Attorney General.
Joseph Wetch: Even though there’s a jury verdict?
Mac Schneider: Well, Judge Erickson’s decision invalidated the death penalty jury verdict. And so our office in the wake of that proceeded as if there would be another penalty phase trial.
Joseph Wetch: Oh, I see.
Mac Schneider: The Attorney General under the Justice Manual then directed us to withdraw the notice, and that’s what we were bound to do.
Joseph Wetch: I see. I see. Because that was wrong. Erickson did not uphold the verdict. He, in fact was the trial judge and then was elevated to the A Circuit Court of Appeals and then reversed himself on the penalty that he imposed as a trial judge, if I remember correctly.
Mac Schneider: Yeah, in lay terms, Judge Erickson’s opinion invalidated the jury’s death penalty verdict.
Joseph Wetch: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Well, Mac, as we wrap up here, any last thoughts on the legal issues facing North Dakota in the region that we haven’t talked about that you want to point out to our listeners and maybe enlist the public’s help in raising awareness about?
Mac Schneider: North Dakota is facing a lot of the same challenges that we’re facing across the country, and that requires talented prosecutors and civil attorneys to address those issues. And I’ve got to brag on the office for a little bit. This office, its work may not be splashy front page news, but I see everyday prosecutors who are working directly with tribal partners to promote public safety in tribal communities throughout North Dakota. I see civil division attorneys standing up for civil rights of the disabled, making sure that North Dakotans have access to fair housing. And I just wish everybody in North Dakota and throughout the country could see what I see every day coming from these individuals who work for the Department of Justice, our law enforcement partners, both federally and the ones that work for the state of North Dakota and communities throughout the state, they are dedicated patriots who are extremely talented people who are doing great work for our country. So really, it is a true privilege and honor to be able to come to work every day and work shoulder to shoulder with people like that.
Joseph Wetch: Well, Mac, I’ve known you for a long time and I can tell you that the people of North Dakota are lucky to have you as their United States attorney.
Mac Schneider: Well, it’s very kind of you to say, Joe, and it means a lot coming from an attorney of your caliber. So thank you.
Joseph Wetch: Mac, thanks for coming on Midwest Law Talk. It’s been great talking with you.
Mac Schneider: My pleasure, Joe. Thank you.
Joseph Wetch: That’s the end of this episode. Please be sure to subscribe and check back often for new episodes. Until next time, be safe and take care. I’m Joseph Wetch.