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With children grown, Belleville mom moves on to become new chief judge of U.S. court

Meet the new U.S. District chief judge for Southern Illinois

United States District Judge for the Southern District of Illinois Nancy J. Rosenstengel was named Chief Judge on April 1, 2019. She is the first woman to hold this position.
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United States District Judge for the Southern District of Illinois Nancy J. Rosenstengel was named Chief Judge on April 1, 2019. She is the first woman to hold this position.

If you didn’t know she was a judge, you wouldn’t guess it by her demeanor. And, if she had followed her first thoughts in college, she would be working somewhere in the science or medical fields.

But Nancy J. Rosenstengel, the new chief United States District judge for the Southern District of Illinois as of April 1, has worked in the federal building in East St. Louis for the last 21 years in different capacities.

“I never dreamed I would be a judge. It just shows that if you come in and work hard, opportunities open up for you,” said Rosenstengel, who warmly welcomes visitors to her chambers as if they are guests in her living room.

A teaching assistant in college, Kenna Kiger, was a mentor and the person who got Rosenstengel interested in law. Kiger was “very impressive in her studies” and encouraged Rosenstengel to enroll in law school.

Rosenstengel is the first woman to hold the top job in the federal court building in the Southern District of Illinois. She was preceded by Michael J. Reagan, who retired a few months ago.

She also is the first female judge to sit on the federal bench in this district. She was nominated by former President Barack Obama to serve in the U.S. District Court in the southern district of his home state and she was sworn into office in May 2014.

 051619DH Nancy J Rosenstengel.jpg
U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Illinois Nancy J. Rosenstengel was named chief judge on April 1. “I never dreamed I would be a judge. It just shows that if you come in and work hard, opportunities open up for you,” Rosenstengel said. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

Shortly after Obama appointed Rosenstengel, he appointed Staci Yandle as the second woman to serve as a federal judge in the district. Yandle, who is the first openly gay female judge in the district and grew up in Centreville and East St. Louis, was confirmed by the Senate in June 2014 and is based in the courthouse in Benton.

Rosenstengel is a former clerk of the same court under former U.S. District Judge Patrick Murphy, who retired in 2013.

The 51-year-old grew up in Alton and later attended the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where she earned her undergraduate degree.

From there, Rosenstengel headed to the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale School of Law. When she finished in 1993, she thought she might go to work at a state’s attorney’s office.

Instead, she she took a job with the Sandberg, Phoenix and Von Gontard law firm in St. Louis from 1993 to 1998. In 1996, she married her husband of 23 years, John Rosenstengel, a Belleville attorney. She primarily handled cases involving products liability and medical malpractice.

A mom of three

The couple moved to Belleville in 1996. They have two daughters and a son. Among her accomplishments, Rosenstengel said she is most proud to be a mother.

Taking her children to school, going on family outings, spending quality family time, all were at the top of her list. For that, she happily delayed the demands of her law career, working as a law clerk for Murphy.

She was a law clerk for Murphy from 1998 to 2009, when she was sworn in as clerk of the court, where her duties as an administrative official included overseeing the budget.

“I made the switch (from attorney) to law clerk because I wanted kids,” she said. “It was better work with a more balanced life. Yet, it was challenging and interesting. I was still in the courtroom.

“I always wanted to have a family of my own. A mother has to be around, has to have energy to give the kids what they need.”

Now that her children are grown, Rosenstengel said she enjoys the challenge of her new position as chief judge.

“All of my cases are interesting in different ways,” she said.

US District Judge Nancy Rosenstengel presided over the induction of 61 new citizens from 28 different countries at Mascoutah HS in February 2018.

Her judgments so far have touched a range from a transfer case involving pharmaceutical products liability to criminal charges against a defendant who “never really had a chance.”

While she knows the defendant is in front of her because he broke the law and has to be punished according to the law, she is keenly aware that not everybody had a good childhood or supportive family.

“He wasn’t raised properly. He didn’t have parents or a warm, clean bed to sleep in. He was exposed to violence,” Rosenstengel said. “So, he went down the wrong path. He never had the opportunity to do the right thing. It was no surprise to me that he ended up in front of me. It’s very sad.”

Rosenstengel advises those within the criminal justice system to work with their probation officers and to take advantage of federal programs she says have helped many turn their lives around.

‘A great judge’

Karen Simons, chief U.S. deputy marshal, said, “Judge Rosenstengel is the perfect example of a great judge.

“In addition to being very intelligent, she’s tactful, open-minded and has a great deal of common sense. She is highly respected by everyone in our courthouse,” Simons said.

When Simons started working the court system 26 years ago, it looked a lot different.

“I didn’t see many female judges,” she said.

“I can’t describe exactly what it means to me to walk in to serve a court with a female judge. Part of this is because I am a mother who has a daughter. My daughter or other females can walk into this courthouse see her sitting on the bench. This shows them that if they work hard they can accomplish anything,” Simons said.

The courthouse does tours and Simons is sure that some of the females who visit the courthouse will be inspired to pursue a dream that includes becoming a judge. “They will see her all charged up and running things. It is pretty incredible,” Simons said.

“I don’t know that she knows how much it means to us. I feel the same way about Judge Staci Yandle, who is on the bench on Benton. It makes me smile. It is such an inspiring feeling to serve them,” said Simons.

Rosenstengel’s predecessor as chief judge praised her talents.

“Judge Rosenstengel brings unparalleled experience to the Office of Chief Judge for the Southern District of Illinois,” Reagan said. “A former practicing lawyer, law clerk and clerk of court, she is well-positioned to address the challenges of an ever-increasing and complex caseload.”

Yandle said from the time she was appointed judge, Rosenstengel has “brought a much needed different point of view. She is the first female appointed to this district ever.”

Rosenstengel brings new experiences in terms of the life she has lived so far, her knowledge and “everything diversity brings,” Yandle said.

Yandle said Rosenstengel had only been a judge for five years before getting this new job as chief judge. But, she said she brings a wealth of law experience that she garnered under Murphy. “She became clerk of the court. She has knowledge of all aspects of the court and has a relationship with all of the related agencies. All of that helps to form her ideas and decision-making as chief.

“I am excited about what’s going to happen under her direction. Some new things and changes have been implemented. I think they will be helpful to the court in general,” Yandle said.

Public safety concerns

Former U.S. Marshal Don Slazinik said Rosenstengel is “a consummate professional.”

“I worked with her when she was court clerk and worked for Judge Murphy. I worked with her all of the way up to when she was appointed judge.”

Slazinik described her as “a problem solver. “Not that other judges weren’t, that’s just a skill she has. She is really good with working with people in all ways and positions.

“She is a pleasure to be around, whether you agree with her or not. She always has valid reasons for her opinions.”

Slazinik said one of the best things Rosenstengel did for him was “she always showed concern for” public safety.

“She was always concerned with our ability to keep the courthouse safe, the judges, all of my deputies and the public safe. I deeply appreciated that. At the end of the day, those people all want to go home safe,” Slazinik said.

And when Rosenstengel steps down from the bench and returns to her Belleville home, the mother in her returns easily. She says she enjoys cooking and being with her family.

“I have good kids and a good family,” she said. “I’m blessed.”

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Carolyn P. Smith has worked for the Belleville News-Democrat for 18 years and currently covers breaking news in the Metro-East. She graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Missouri at Columbia and says news is in her DNA.
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