State Supreme Court holds March term at USD law school by David Lias The television show The People's Court is no longer on the air locally, but the impressions of a no-nonsense Judge Wapner, and the message at the end of each show, "If you're at loggerheads with someone and can't find any other means to solve the problem, take them to court," remain.
Students at The University of South Dakota and at several high schools in the Vermillion area got to see the state's own version of the people's court.
They soon learned that, in the real world, the court system is much different than that which is presented on television.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the five-person South Dakota Supreme Court met at the USD School of Law as part of its March term.
Nine cases were scheduled during those three days to be argued orally before the court. For these cases, attorneys are permitted to appear before the court to emphasize certain points of the case, and respond to the court's questions.
It's a learning experience for not only the Supreme Court justices who hear the attorneys' arguments, but for the students and other members of public seated in the gallery of the law school courtroom to take in the whole process.
When the March term opened with its first arguments at 9 a.m. Monday morning, the cases were argued before an audience of not only law school and university students, but also high school students who traveled by bus to watch the justices in action.
"I think that it is very important for the public to gain an appreciation for what the court system does," said Barry Vickrey, dean of the USD School of Law. "You gain a legal understanding of the duties of the Supreme Court."
South Dakota is fortunate, he added. The court's four justices — Richard W. Sabers, Robert A. Amundson, John K. Konenkamp and David Gilbertson — and Chief Justice Robert A. Miller work quickly and efficiently.
"When you spend some time with the court, you soon realize that you are spending time with ordinary people who are serious about doing a good job," Vickrey said. "They're just great public servants. They do their jobs very well."
Wide range of cases
The nine cases heard by the court in Vermillion this week cover a wide range of alleged injustices. For example:
* The state of South Dakota appealed the dismissal of grand theft charges against a former member of the National Guard who didn't return certain items when he resigned.
The former Guard member, through his attorney, argued for his freedom Monday, alleging that the state statute is unconstitutional.
* A woman collegiate amateur golfer who aced a hole during a hole-in-one contest at Moccasin Creek Country Club in Aberdeen in 1995 sued the country club and Northland Ford Dealers because she was never awarded the contest prize of a new Ford vehicle. She teed off from the women's tee, and it was determined that her shot did not meet the minimum distance requirements for the contest. Tournament participants had not been told that, to qualify for the contest, they would have to tee off from a certain tee.
A trial court found in favor of the golfer on her claims against the dealers and the club, and it also awarded a summary judgement in favor of the club, which had filed a cross-claim against the Ford dealers. The dealers appealed both awards of summary judgement.
* In 1993, a woman and her 19-year-old daughter rode their horses across a riding pasture owned by Ellsworth Air Force Base Riding Club. During a controlled gallop, the daughter's horse tripped, somersaulted, landed on the teenage girl and killed her.
It was later determined that the horse tripped because it stepped in a cable trench dug by AT&T Corporation and Lucent Technologies, Inc., with the assistance of a subcontractor.
The family of the girl took the companies to court for wrongful death and other charges. The trial court found that all of the plaintiffs' claims were barred by South Dakota's equine activities statutes.
The Supreme Court was asked by attorneys representing the family whether the trial court erred in its interpretation of the equine activities act, and whether the act is unconstitutional, and whether the lower court erred in deciding that the mother's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is inactionable as a matter of law.
Highlight of the year
Vickrey said it would be fair to describe the South Dakota Supreme Court as "a court of last resort" for those cases that likely would always remain confined within the state court system. He noted that cases that could be appealed to federal court, for instance, could eventually wind up being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court to be resolved.
The state Supreme Court usually meets on the USD campus every spring.
"It's a real highlight of the year for us," Vickrey said, speaking for the law professors and their students. "All of us here work very hard — the teaching and the study of law can be very intense — and this gives us all a chance to see where all the work that we do winds up. It's fun for us to see how all of this works out."
The court itself helps insure that its March term is interesting for the students and the public. "They do look through their schedule, and I think they're hearing a lot of interesting cases here, and they're always helpful when it comes to promoting an area of law for our students."
The justices typically will need from 60 to 100 days before finalizing the court's opinions on the cases heard in Vermillion this week.
"A special aspect of this court, I think, is all of the justices really like each other and respect each other," Vickrey said. "They all debate the various cases without personality conflicts coming in. You couldn't ask for any better situation than that."