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Vakulskas leaves family firm for judge’s bench

January 8, 2019 GMT

SIOUX CITY -- When he was taking out the trash and mowing the grass at his father’s Sioux City law office, Dan Vakulskas never really envisioned himself someday donning a judge’s robe and being seated on the bench.

The housekeeping errands Tom Vakulskas assigned to his youngest child probably didn’t inspire many legal aspirations in his son’s mind, but sending him down to the Woodbury County Courthouse with papers for judges and clerks to sign, as well as letting his son watch court hearings, sure did.

“I enjoyed it. I enjoyed watching him interact with clients, watching him interact with other lawyers,” Dan Vakulskas said. “I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life.”

From now on, he’ll be seeing it from behind the bench rather than in front of it.

Vakulskas officially took the bench as the new district associate judge for Plymouth and Sioux counties on Friday, replacing District Associate Judge Robert Dull, who retired last month. Vakulskas’ investiture ceremony is Jan. 18.

“It was never a goal of mine from day one to become a judge,” said Vakulskas, a 2001 North High School graduate.

But a law career was always in his mind. Vakulskas said his father and mother, Barb, never nudged him toward law, but growing up, it was all he knew. When not doing chores around the office or running papers to the courthouse and Law Enforcement Center, he tagged along with his dad and got to know the judges, court officers and clerks, becoming familiar with the legal process.

It didn’t hurt that his older brother, Brian, and sister, Molly Vakulskas-Joly, both preceded him to law school and began working with their father, who started the family firm in 1976 in a house at 1721 Jackson St. and is now retired.

“I saw a lot of what my brother and sister were doing, and I learned a lot from that. They kind of helped mold me into what I became,” Vakulskas said.

He received a political science degree from the University of Iowa in 2005 and his law degree in 2010 from the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan. He returned home and joined the family firm with Brian and Molly, practicing criminal, juvenile and family law and also taking mental health commitment cases.

While happy with that work, Vakulskas took a chance and applied for an open part-time magistrate position to which he was appointed in August 2017. He enjoyed presiding over traffic cases, small claims and simple misdemeanors. It led him to refocus his career aspirations.

“Once I started doing magistrate work, it clicked that this is what I can do for the rest of my life,” he said.

He had applied but was not chosen for a previous district associate judge opening. He decided to try again when Dull announced his retirement. He was one of three finalists forwarded by the judicial nominating commission to the district judges, who made the final selection.

At age 36, Vakulskas will be one of the youngest judges in the district.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I know I’m young,” he said. “I want to put a good face on for the judicial system.”

A district associate judge hears mainly misdemeanor cases, small claims and civil suits for judgment of up to $10,000 in addition to hospitalization cases and juvenile cases, many involving parental rights termination. They also often preside over defendants’ initial appearances, setting their bond amounts.

“I’m excited to get into the flow of things,” said Vakulskas, who has two children with his wife, Nikki.

It’s a bittersweet move, he said. Leaving the practice he shared with his siblings will be hard, as will leaving the Jackson Street office in which he spent much of his life.

“I kind of grew up in this office,” he said while glancing around a front room filled with law books and other memorabilia. “The only thing I’m not looking forward to is leaving here. I’m leaving a big piece of my life when I walk out of here.”