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Bialas is on the defense: Stark Co. adds public defender

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Ryan Bialas, an East Coast native and the new public defender for southwestern North Dakota courts, discusses his work in his Sims Street office in Dickinson on March 20.

As Stark County’s new public defender, Ryan Bialas will work alongside one other attorney defending indigent people in southwestern North Dakota courtrooms.

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Bialas started last week, ending a five-month period where fellow public defender Kevin McCabe worked alone.

An East Coast native who couldn’t believe there’s no dry cleaner in town, Bialas attended Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law and then worked on both sides of the criminal court — as a prosecutor and then in criminal defense — in Pennsylvania.

“I really enjoy the law no matter what I’m doing,” he said.

But he said he found problems with prosecuting. “You become the badge,” and stop seeing people as people, he said. As a defender — especially in juvenile cases — which he’ll handle most of here, he learns about his clients.

He said the law in North Dakota also seems to him to be a little more focused on people than in Pennsylvania.

“It looks like the system here still cares,” he said. “You’re not throwing people away.”

Before law, Bialas toyed with the idea of being a music teacher. He has played the clarinet his whole life and his parents were both teachers.

“It would be a lie if I said, ‘My whole life I wanted to be an attorney,’” he joked.

McCabe said Bialas was the third or fourth person offered the position. A couple of the other candidates visited town and “they just decided it wasn’t the right fit for them.”

McCabe didn’t say whether it was housing costs or other oil-related issues that turned them off, but if it was, they weren’t alone — public offices throughout the state struggle to hire people to a community with an affordable housing shortage and where oil industry jobs’ salaries are always tempting.

Bialas is yet to be licensed in North Dakota, so McCabe still has to work closely with him and supervise him, McCabe said. Bialas hopes to have his license in the next month-and-a-half.

“I can’t give him cases on his own yet,” he said.

Assistant Stark County State’s Attorney Rhonda Ehlis said at the two bond hearings she’s been at with Bialas, he did well for his clients.

“He seems very approachable,” she said. “So far he’s been very easy to work with.”

Jay Greenwood was the other public defender working with McCabe before leaving to go into private practice in Fargo.

So for a while, McCabe was on his own.

“We were sitting around three or four months without anybody,” McCabe said.

To help McCabe in the interim, local lawyers assisted the office on a contract or hourly basis.

“The other attorneys in town here stepped up and we got through it and hopefully now it’s back to normal,” McCabe said.

“He went a long time where it was just him and that office,” Greenwood said of McCabe. “I know he had a lot to do.”

When asked what advice Greenwood would give to his replacement, he was blunt.

“Stay positive. There’s a lot of losing involved but, you know, learn as much as you can from the cases that you have and do a good job managing your time,” he said, “because it starts to become one of the most difficult parts of being a public defender is caseload and how you manage to get everything done.”

Angela Bialas, Ryan’s wife, said he seems excited about being in a changing community.

“I think he wants to be there in the beginning to help build up this great community,” she said. “… He wants to really play a part of it and be in it for the long haul.”

She said it might not always show in the courtroom, where he has to be tough, but her husband is the most caring person she’s met.

“He has the helper’s syndrome,” she said.

Family reunion

Angela Bialas, their 6-year-old son, Thomas, and two dogs plan to move to Dickinson once Thomas’ school year is over.

The family Skypes to keep in touch, but the two-hour time difference, along with making dinner, keeps Bialas busy at night. He calls himself a hermit.

But he’s making a list of places to take his son, like Theodore Roosevelt National Park, for when the family reunites.

Until then, he puts himself up in one of the new apartment complexes in town. He’s already found how small a boomtown can be — he has a neighbor from Gettysburg, Penn.

“This is the new American melting pot,” he said.