Aberdeen, SD – A federal judge in South Dakota brought criminal charges of contempt of court and conspiracy to obstruct justice against three U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) officials on Monday in connection with a deputy marshal’s refusal to reveal her vaccination status to his court.
In March, U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann tried to require all courthouse employees to be vaccinated, the Associated Press reported.
But U.S. Marshal Daniel Mosteller, who heads up the agency in South Dakota, told Kornmann that wouldn’t work because USMS was not requiring its marshals to be vaccinated.
Marshal Mosteller also told the judge that marshals would not be disclosing their vaccination statuses to the court, the Associated Press reported.
Things came to a head on May 10 when a deputy marshal brought the first defendant of the day into Kornmann’s courtroom, the Aberdeen News reported.
The judge asked the marshal if she was vaccinated and she refused to answer the question, so Kornmann asked her to leave the courtroom, the Associated Press reported.
Kornmann noted that the deputy left the courtroom under protest and initially attempted to take the defendant she was escorting with her, the Aberdeen News reported.
But the judge pulled another fully-vaccinated deputy marshal into the courtroom for the hearing.
That hearing went just fine, but when it was time to bring the next defendant into the courtroom, Kornmann learned the deputy marshal he’d ejected had, acting on orders from her supervisor, left the courthouse with the in-custody defendants in tow, the Aberdeen News reported.
The hearings scheduled for that day were eventually conducted virtually with the judge and defendants in separate rooms.
Court documents showed that U.S. Chief Deputy Marshal for South Dakota Stephen Houghtaling called Kornmann and told him the rest of the defendants for the day had been removed from the courthouse because USMS didn’t feel the courtroom was secure with only two deputy marshals in the room, the Associated Press reported.
Marshal Houghtaling also told the judge that deputy marshals weren’t required to disclose their vaccination status to third parties, including judges, the Aberdeen News reported.
Kornmann ordered Marshals Mosteller and Houghtaling and USMS Chief of Staff John Kilgallon to appear before him on Monday.
The three supervising officers appeared before the judge at a hearing that lasted more than an hour on June 14, the Aberdeen News reported.
U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys Leah Brownlee Taylor and Josh Gardner appeared to represent the USMS officials at the initial hearing but said the three were securing criminal defense attorneys to represent them.
Kornmann said at the hearing that he had reviewed the facts and argument presented thus far and determined the assertion that marshals didn’t have to disclose their vaccination status was wrong, the Aberdeen News reported.
The judge also called the argument made by the general public that individuals have a right to choose not to get the vaccine was nonsense.
He called the arguments made by USMS “frivolous” and “bogus,” including the assertion that the officials couldn’t be held in contempt because the order didn’t refer to them, the Aberdeen News reported.
“That is bogus,” Kornmann said. “They engaged in a conspiracy.”
The judge said the supervisors’ job was to obey and execute orders of the U.S. District Court and said their actions caused defendants to miss hearings without any warning given to their attorneys or the court, the Aberdeen News reported.
“This was such an outrageous thing to do,” he said.
“Nothing like this has happened in the United States,” Kornmann said later and categorized the marshals’ actions as either kidnapping or holding the defendants hostage, the Aberdeen News reported.
The judge cited numerous cases and rulings during the hearing, a December 2020 Equal Employee Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decision that said employers could ask employees if they have been vaccinated and may terminate those who haven’t.
He offered the USMS officials an opportunity to resolve the case during the hearing on Monday, the Aberdeen News reported.
Kornmann suggested they each make an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, and pay a $5,000 fine.
But none of the supervisors chose that option, according to the Aberdeen News.
None of the officials entered a plea during the hearing and Kornmann scheduled a trial date of Sept. 13 for the men.
The officials were released on their own recognizance, but the judge ordered Marshals Mosteller and Houghtaling to remain in South Dakota, and he ordered Kilgallon to remain in the United States, the Aberdeen News reported.
The judge gave the U.S. Attorneys Office of South Dakota until Friday to take up the case and said that if they hadn’t done it by then, he would get another prosecutor to do it.