Three Generations of Meierhenry Women Reflect on Legal Life, Time at USD
By Malachi Petersen '17 B.A., '18 M.P.A.
For some families, attending the University of South Dakota is a rite of passage, producing generation after generation of Coyotes. No family exemplifies the tradition better than the Meierhenry family: spanning back to the early 1960s, several members of the clan have earned both undergraduate and law degrees at South Dakota’s oldest university, culminating in noteworthy careers and paving the way for women in law.
In 1962, one part of the family’s legacy at USD began when then Judith Knittel Meierhenry enrolled as a freshman aiming to obtain her Bachelor of Arts degree. After graduating in 1966, she taught high school English for a year before returning to USD for her master’s degree in English, which she obtained two years later, in 1968.
Judith began teaching again after graduation, first in the USD Department of English as a professor while her husband, Mark Meierhenry, attended law school, and then briefly as a professor at a small college in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. After three years of teaching high school English at the Rosebud Indian Reservation, at the age of 30, she decided to return to school in order to change careers.
“At that point I decided I was going to go do something else and that’s when I decided to go to law school,” she said.
While beginning her career and pursuing additional professional education, Judith was also contending with a burgeoning family. Her two children, Todd and Mary, were born in 1961 and 1965, respectively.
“In the 60’s, women didn’t have many opportunities in the professional schools. When my husband went to law school — he graduated in 1970 — there were just a handful of women. I think in his class they had one woman and the year after that they had two or three women.”
After graduating from law school, Judith kept shattering gender stereotypes, leading a successful career in private practice before being appointed the secretary of South Dakota’s Department of Labor by Gov. Bill Janklow in 1980 and then serving as the state’s Secretary of Education and Cultural Affairs in 1983. Her husband, Mark, served as attorney general of South Dakota from 1979 to 1987.
Returning to the private sector, she worked at Citibank, South Dakota, as a senior manager and assistant general counsel before her dedication to public service took on another form in 1988 when she was appointed to South Dakota’s Circuit Court. In 1997, she was appointed the Circuit’s presiding judge before reaching the pinnacle of her career in 2002, becoming the first woman in South Dakota’s history to be appointed to the state Supreme Court, where she served until her retirement in 2011.
With her wide variety of work experiences, Judith said no matter what role she was in or job she was doing, there was always one thing that was consistent.
“I found what I was doing exciting and challenging and fun. Like most jobs, there were some duties that were less fun than others, like sentencing someone or terminating parental rights, but in a sense it was challenging and rewarding too. I really hoped that people would feel they were treated fairly and I tried to make sure of that. I wanted to make a positive difference and that was a rewarding part of whatever I did.”
She also credited her well-rounded career with preparing her for the position of judge. “As far as I’m concerned, the more background you get — the more understanding you have of people, business, events — the better you are at it,” she said.
Judith said looking back at all of the things both she and her husband accomplished throughout the years, the two balanced their lives just like any other professional working couple does — on a day-to-day basis.
While their daughter, Mary, went on to college to become an OBGYN, the couple’s passion for the legal field wore off on their son, Todd, who followed in his parent’s footsteps and attended USD for both his undergraduate and J.D. degrees. It was at USD that Todd would meet and welcome into the family the next successful female attorney in the Meierhenry family.
The future Sabrina Meierhenry was the first person in her family to graduate college. She became interested in law as an undergraduate at USD when she took a variety of criminal justice classes.
“Attending law school was always in the back of my mind. I had parents that really believed in education and that you could do anything,” Sabrinasaid.
Now a prominent land title lawyer in Sioux Falls, Sabrina still remembers meeting her future husband at a fraternity party her freshman year at USD. Although the two immediately hit it off, they wouldn’t start dating until four years later when they were both in law school at USD.
“We talked and talked and talked that night, and I thought he was interesting. It’s a good example that sometimes you can wait until the time isright,” she said. When she and Todd began to finally date, she said she wasn’t too nervous about meeting his esteemed parents until she got to their house.
“When I got there, there was china set out and it just had a different feel to it — this wasn’t the casual ‘meet the parents’ dinner like I had been through before,” she said. “Come to find out, Todd had never brought anyone home so without saying anything to Mark, Judy and Todd, it meant something!”
In 1986, after less than a year of dating, the two were engaged and then married in 1987. Once they were finished with law school, they began their professional lives, which for Sabrina meant a stint in criminal litigation at the Public Defender’s Office — something she said she loved for its challenge. Then she entered private practice with her husband and father-in-law.
The couple also began having children. While their first son, Max, and daughter, Mae, were born healthy, their third child was born with a fatal disease and soon died.
“It really can change your perspective and solidifies the things you really believe in. I really needed to find balance after that,” Sabrina said.
Sabrina soon switched to business and real estate law. In the last several years, she has also served in a variety of roles in community organizations — including as director and chair of the Sioux Falls Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum. She and Todd also had another daughter, Margaret, who’s now a junior in high school.
“I really hoped that people would feel they were treated fairly and I tried to make sure of that. I wanted to make a positive difference and that was a rewarding part of whatever I did.”
—Judith Knittel Meierhenry
While Judith and Sabrina followed a similar path in going to USD for both their undergraduate and law degrees, Sabrina and Todd’s daughter, Mae, decided she wanted to forge her own path. She bucked the family tradition of undergraduate years at USD, and instead chose to attend Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where she played on the golf team and majored in economics with an emphasis in finance.
“I decided to go there for the school and to really just find myself outside South Dakota and outside of any family’s influence,” she said.
After an internship in the Twin Cities in a finance role, Mae said she realized she was more passionate about her policy and political science classes. That’s when she started to think about law school.
“I was resistant to the idea of going to law school just because growing up I was always asked if I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “Naturally I just wanted to find my own path and make sure what I was doing was for myself.”
Mae decided to come back to South Dakota for law school, recognizing she missed her home state. She finished her first year of law school at USD in spring 2018 and said while she hasn’t decided on what type of law she wants to practice, she hopes it is in an area where she can utilize her finance and economics background. She said she’s grateful for the advice of her grandmother and mother when it came time to decide where to go to get her J.D.
“Although they did not overtly push me to go to law school, they certainly played a role how I perceived the world in a sense of ‘what is possible.’ It is immeasurable how much I have been shaped by having such ambitious, intelligent and thoughtful women lead me through life,” Mae said.
While she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do after law school, she does know that she wants to stay in the state and work in the Sioux Falls area.
“Really I just want to be in a position where I can influence people and help grow South Dakota in some capacity in order to give back. I feel that South Dakota has given me a lot of opportunities and I want to help continue to create those opportunities for other people,” she said.
If her family’s history in the legal field in the state after attending USD is any indication, she’s well on her way to success.