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Home » Civil rights officer added to U.S. Attorney’s office

John Hult, jhult@argusleader.com Published July 31, 2016 | Aug. 1, 2016

The job of the state’s top federal prosecutor goes beyond locking people up.

South Dakota’s U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler is the face of federal law for the state, whose reach extends into employment, lending and housing discrimination, hate crimes, voting rights and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Until this year, however, Seiler’s office hasn’t had an lawyer dedicated primarily to civil rights.

That’s changed with Alison Ramsdell’s appointment as the head of the newly-created Civil Rights section. The Flandreau native will lead the office’s efforts to educate the public on civil rights matters and pursue legal action against those who break the law.

“A lot of people think of the U.S. Attorney’s office as federal prosecutors bringing charges and putting people in prison, but they forget that we do civil work, too,” Ramsdell said. “There are a lot violations of the law that don’t put you in jail that are still really horrendous.”

Ramsdell had worked for the office’s civil division prior to the new hire, but her new position will be to spearhead civil rights cases.

“Typically, we’re just defending the United States – IHS or the post office – but to actually have a human being whose life you can change, knowing that you can end discrimination in someone’s life, I think is powerful,” Ramsdell said.

The position was added from above, when Attorney General Loretta Lynch released funding for 34 new civil rights prosecutors within the 93 U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country. Seiler’s office applied for the funding and was awarded it, which made it possible to refocus Ramsdell’s work.

US Attorney Randy Seiler at the U.S. Attorney's office in Sioux Falls, S.D., Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Photo: Emily Spartz Weerheim / Argus Leader)

US Attorney Randy Seiler at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sioux Falls, S.D., Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Photo: Emily Spartz Weerheim / Argus Leader)

“We wanted to make civil rights a higher priority in our community,” Seiler said.

Much of that work will happen outside a courtroom. The U.S. Attorney’s office held a meeting on the new Civil Rights section at Augustana University to educate community leaders on discrimination laws and the avenues open to those who feel their rights have been violated.

Another meeting is set to take place at the Multicultural Center in Sioux Falls to discuss officer-involved shootings and the role the federal government can play in excessive force investigations.

That closed door meeting will involve the Division of Criminal Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pastors, imams and other community leaders, Seiler said.

“It’s ultimately to advance public safety and to help everyone know what their rights are,” Seiler said.

U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler and and his new civil rights section chief Alison Ramsdell talk at the U.S. Attorney's office in Sioux Falls, S.D., Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Photo: Emily Spartz Weerheim / Argus Leader)

U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler and and his new civil rights section chief Alison Ramsdell talk at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sioux Falls, S.D., Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Photo: Emily Spartz Weerheim / Argus Leader)

Other efforts include sending follow-up letters from Ramsdell to schools on the federal government’s guidance on transgender rights and setting up an information booth at an LGBT rights gathering in Terrace Park this summer.

The office also identified the two South Dakota counties with the largest percentage of disabled residents – Jones and Fall River – and connected with auditors to make sure polling places were accessible. Ramsdell sent letters to day camps about accessibility, as well.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is not the first stop for a discrimination case – that could be the Equal Opportunity Commission or the Housing and Urban Development office – but Ramsdell said the office is a resource for those who need help.

Ramsdell’s movement into the civil rights position opens up a position at for an Assistant U.S. Attorney, which Seiler said will be advertised for soon.

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