ABERDEEN, S.D. — Contempt of court charges have been dismissed in an Aberdeen case that pitted the U.S. Marshals Service against a sitting federal judge.
In a 24-page ruling on Wednesday, Nov. 10, U.S. District Judge Brian C. Buescher refused to proceed with charges against three marshals over a subordinate's refuse to follow COVID-19 protocols in the courtroom of Judge Charles Kornmann, who sits on the bench for the Northern District of South Dakota in Aberdeen.
While a "unique situation," Buescher ultimately characterized the fight as a "policy dispute" between two branches of government. But the judge also flagged the Marshals Service for "fail[ure]" to handling the delicate matter "with the grace and dignity expected" of the marshals, employees of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Despite the Court's clear and explicit instructions, the USMC for the District of South Dakota provided a U.S. Marshal in Judge Kornmann's courtroom who refused to state ... whether she was vaccinated," wrote Buescher. "While securing prisoners is undoubtedly a critical task ... the USMC's actions demonstrate it did not hold a similar high regard for the health and safety" of the court participants.
The judge also added that under the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for federal employees, such a dispute will "soon become a thing of the past."
The charges, which carried potential prison sentences (though Kornmann insisted he didn't want the marshals jailed) stemmed from an incident in the Aberdeen courtroom on May 10, when Kornmann booted a marshal, Kara Kiney, from his courtroom for refusing to answer whether she was vaccinated. Later, as marshals are legally obligated to escort prisoners in a courtroom, the marshals in Aberdeen left the premises with defendants still in their custody -- an evasion Kornmann said amounted to "kidnapping."
The Department of Justice had refused to intervene in the case, and Kornmann had recused himself, appointing special prosecutor, Thomas Fritz, a Rapid City attorney. The marshals, including Chief of Staff John Kilgallon, U.S. Marshal for South Dakota Daniel C. Mosteller, and his chief deputy, Stephen Houghtaling, were defended by former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley and former U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Ron Parsons.
An earlier email correspondence between marshals officials and Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of South Dakota Roberto Lange filed in court suggested that fewer than half of the marshals working in South Dakota had been vaccinated by this spring. In court filings, Kornmann had suggested a courtroom employee had underlying health conditions that made her at increased risk to illness from the coronavirus.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 48 prisoners in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service have died with COVID-19, according to federal records. The Biden administration's mandate requires federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22.