Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias It should come as no surprise that the greatest resistance to a plan of the South Dakota Supreme Court to reorganize the state's circuit court boundaries and move judges where they are most needed came from Pierre.

The new alignment plan proposed by the Supreme Court, and discussed at length at public hearings the court held across South Dakota last June, called for moving one judge position from the Sixth Circuit, in the middle of the state (the Pierre area) to our neck of the woods in the First Circuit.

In other words, if the Supreme Court had its druthers, Circuit Judge Lori Wilbur of Pierre would move down here to assist Judge Arthur Rusch with the burgeoning caseload of the First Circuit.

There were signs last June that the Supreme Court's plan may run into a snag. That notion seemed so far fetched, however, that it was hard to take seriously at the time.

When the Supreme Court met in Vermillion June 16, Rusch noted that the overwhelming attitude expressed at the court's June 3 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 told the justices. "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."

The Supreme Court, in implementing its realignment plan, later transferred Wilbur, who was elected in 1998, to the southeastern part of the state.

Following a recent incredible display of effort by the Legislature for a single individual, however, Wilbur gets to stay put in Pierre. Last week it was announced by Gov. William Janklow that he will appoint a new judge to help out in the First Circuit. The Legislature will find money in the budget to support the extra judgeship.

On Feb. 9, a legislative committee approved a constitutional amendment that would have assured Wilbur was not moved. The proposed constitutional change would have said no circuit judge could be permanently transferred to a circuit that did not include the judge's voting residence.

A day later, on Feb. 10, the full House voted unanimously to kill the proposed constitutional amendment. Wilbur, whose family has lived in Pierre for a long time, gets to stay in the central part of the state. And we in the First Circuit will be getting a newly appointed judge.

Maybe we shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth. After all, we're going to be getting a much needed new circuit judge appointment here.

We have to wonder, however, if the final agreement reached by the Supreme Court, the Legislature and the governor's office is long on sympathy for a single circuit judge and short on efficiency both in terms of tax dollars and caseloads.

Wilbur was supposed to move to southeastern South Dakota, presumably because her talents were needed here more than in central South Dakota, where reportedly the courts, thanks to shifting demographics, aren't as busy.

The Supreme Court's realignment plan calls for making Hughes County part of the new Fourth Circuit, where it will join Sully, Lyman, Gregory, Tripp/Todd, Mellette, Jones, Stanley, Haakon, Jackson and Bennett counties.

The new Fourth Circuit is to be comprised of four circuit judges and one magistrate judge.

We can only assume that now, with Wilbur staying in Pierre, the Fourth Circuit will be served by five, not four circuit judges.

Members of the Legislature, you see, claimed that Wilbur's transfer to southeastern South Dakota clashed with a constitutional requirement that judges serve in the areas where they were elected.

If this is true � if lawmakers truly aren't getting hung up on semantics here � that means we'll eventually have one too many circuit judges in the state.

And, that judge will be underworked.

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