Rusch: Changes are needed in local circuit court system

Rusch: Changes are needed in local circuit court system by David Lias Southeastern South Dakota is currently enjoying an economic prosperity that may make other areas of the state envious.

But good economic times means population growth, the South Dakota Supreme Court was told Wednesday at a public meeting in Vermillion.

And, according to area judges, magistrates and attorneys, that shift in demographics is starting to strain the circuit court system in this area.

Clay County is part of the First Judicial Circuit. If a proposed reorganization plan becomes reality, three major changes will occur in the First Circuit:

? Lincoln County, and the two judges who live there, will be shifted to a new Second Circuit.

? Brule, Buffalo, Aurora, Davison, Hanson and McCook and the judges who live there would be moved from the present Third Circuit to the First Circuit.

? A judge will be added to the First Circuit, either by moving a judge from Pierre or by creating a new position.

First Circuit Judge Arthur Rusch addressed the Supreme Court Wednesday, and recalled that the overwhelming attitude expressed at the Court�s June 3 public meeting in Pierre was that everything was working fine in the present court system so no changes should be made.

�I think the comment was made that you shouldn�t try to fix something that is not broken,� Rusch said. �I�m here to tell you, from the perspective of the First Circuit, things are broken. This isn�t anyone�s fault. It is simply the result of demographic changes that have occurred in the state of South Dakota in the last 25 years.�

Rusch said that presently, most of the counties in the existing First Circuit are being adequately served.

�However, I don�t believe that the Yankton/Clay/Union county area is being adequately served as a result of the shortage of judges in this area,� he said. �As a result, this area has developed significant scheduling problems. I�m scheduling trials in the year 2000 now. I can�t schedule even a short hearing until September.�

Rusch cited demographic statistics to back up his contentions that more judges are needed to serve the growing population in southeastern South Dakota.

He also expressed a concern about the changes being proposed to the First Circuit.

�Of course, we are all comfortable with the circuits as they are now,� Rusch said. �A larger circuit will make judicial elections more difficult. A larger circuit will bring in lawyers and court personnel that we don�t know and who don�t know us. It will be more difficult and time consuming to administer a larger circuit.�

But, he added, he is willing to deal with a larger circuit if that�s what it takes to get the judges needed to handle the caseloads in this area of the state.

�The most important thing we need is to get the judges that we need,� he said. �I believe that getting enough judges to handle the caseload is important for the lawyers in this area but most important for the clients who need a speedy and just disposition of their cases.�

Robert Klimisch, a Yankton attorney who serves as president of the Yankton County Bar Association, urged the Court to consider Yankton County�s needs.

�Our position is we need an additional circuit court judge to serve in Yankton County,� he said. �We would like that circuit court judge to reside in Yankton County. The Yankton County Bar Association is concerned that no changes will take place.�

In contrast, Alice Rokahr, a Yankton attorney, told the Court that she doesn�t support the reorganization plan in its present form.

�What we have is a system that�s broken,� she said. �And I don�t think that bigger is always necessarily better. To say that we have to add counties (and in effect make the First Circuit�s area increase by five counties) does not make sense,� she said.

Rokahr noted that approximately 70 percent of her business deals with domestic cases that many times require prompt hearings.

�That will become impossible if we lose the two current sitting judges in Yankton,� she said. Rokahr said she feared her clients would experience a scheduling backlog, or be forced to travel 90 miles to Mitchell to receive a quick court hearing.

Bruce Odson of Vermillion, who is in the publishing business in Elk Point, told the justices of the skyrocketing economic growth that is occurring in southeastern South Dakota.

�Union County has changed dramatically,� he said. �We�re adjacent to Sioux City, IA, a major metropolitan area. And we�re on the entry to the interstate. We have 800 to 1,000 trucks a day pass by our community.�

He added that 10 percent of South Dakota�s video lottery revenues are generated in North Sioux City.

�North Sioux City is the second largest manufacturing area in South Dakota,� Odson said. �People want to come to South Dakota.�

The voters in three school districts in Union County have approved bond issues totaling $27.5 million for the construction of new school facilities, he said. Citizens also approved spending nearly $2 million for a new jail.

�It is a very complex, fast-growing community,� Odson said. �Citizens deserve a sitting judge in Union County.�

Caitlin Collier, a Vermillion attorney who is slowly letting go of her law career to pursue a calling with the Episcopal Church, said she became aware of the great demographic changes occurring in South Dakota during her recent stint as a state legislator.

�There is so much demographic change happening so rapidly in South Dakota that I don�t think you can enter into a plan that would be effective 10, 15 or 20 years from now,� she told the justices. �All you can do is address problems as best you can now.�

Collier said all of the judges in the First Circuit are pressed for time, and scheduling cases is becoming more and more difficult.

She added that when all of the hearings have been held, the Court will probably discover that pros and cons for the realignment of the circuits will have been voiced at each meeting.

�The reality is that everyone is going to have to make a sacrifice,� Collier said. �We all want the best, and I think most of us will be willing to settle for something equitable and fair.�

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