Those Who Administer The Law

A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard
November 3, 2017

This week, it was my honor to participate in the investiture of Steven R. Jensen as the newest member of the South Dakota Supreme Court. Justice Jensen is a native of Wakonda and has been a circuit judge in Elk Point for the last 14 years. Rather than come to Pierre, he held his swearing-in ceremony at the USD Law School in Vermillion, so that he could be near to his family, friends and peers in the legal community.

It doesn’t get much attention, but one of the governor’s most important responsibilities is to appoint Supreme Court justices and circuit court judges. Supreme Court justices are always appointed by the governor. Periodic statewide “retention elections” ask voters to choose “yes” or “no” on retaining each justice. Circuit judges are elected to eight-year terms, but very often they retire mid-term, in which case the governor appoints a successor.

For appointments, a screening committee called the Judicial Qualifications Commission screens applicants to ensure that they are qualified. A governor may appoint only from the list of candidates submitted by the Commission. I typically interview between three and five listed candidates for each open position.

Appointing judges has kept me pretty busy over the years. In South Dakota, judges must retire when they turn 70, and they sometimes retire earlier. As in many other professions, the “baby boomers” are reaching retirement age, and many judges have stepped down in recent years. As of today, 28 of South Dakota’s 43 circuit court judges are new since I took office in 2011, and still three more circuit judge positions are soon to be filled.

I have also made three appointments to the South Dakota Supreme Court. My first appointee, Judge Lori Wilbur, was the second woman to serve on the Court when I appointed her in 2011. My second appointee was Janine Kern, who had been a longtime circuit judge in Rapid City.  Justice Wilbur retired earlier this year, and Justice Jensen replaced her. Justice Jensen is the 50th justice to serve on our five-member court.

In addition to justices Wilbur and Kern, a new generation of younger judges has also brought more women to the circuit court bench. Since 2011, the 28 new circuit judges have included 11 women. Women today make up more than one-quarter of the circuit judge positions in the state, and their number continues to increase.

South Dakota’s judges don’t often get much attention, and they don’t seek it. But they play an important role in our society. Whether it is a high-profile murder trial, a child custody case, a million-dollar contract dispute, or a small claim, we look to our judges to administer the law in a fair and speedy manner. South Dakota is fortunate to have so many attorneys who are willing to serve the public in this important role.

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