Holding Court South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson addresses members and guests of the Vermillion Rotary Club Tuesday. Other justices are Richard Sabers, John K. Konenkamp, Judith K. Meierhenry, and Steven L. Zinter. by David Lias The justices of the South Dakota Supreme Court found themselves in a much more relaxing setting than a courtroom Tuesday.
Instead of hearing opposing arguments from attorneys in a courtroom, the justices enjoyed lunch and fielded questions from members and guests of the Vermillion Rotary Club at the Neuharth Media Center.
The Supreme Court was in Vermillion Monday through Wednesday this week, hearing cases in the USD Law School courtroom during its March term.
Chief Justice David Gilbertson said the court chooses to hear cases every spring that will be of interest to USD and area high school students, who are urged each year to witness the Vermillion proceedings.
"We do this every year, and as far as we know, we are the only supreme court in the nation that does this on a regular basis," Gilbertson said. "We do this because we personally enjoy it, and we also see it as an educational opportunity to let students and other members of the public see how we deal with cases."
Technology has created a revolution of progress in the judicial system, Justice John K. Konenkamp said.
"From the circuit court all the way to the Supreme Court, we've experienced this," he said, "but I suppose for the most part the revolution has really been felt at the circuit court level."
Today, when a person goes in front of a judge, Konenkamp said, a clerk can, with the touch of a button, instantly provide that person's criminal record.
"The information now is almost instantaneous, so people involved in the court system are
Continued on page 14
able to make much more informed decisions."
The justices are also computer literate, he said, and use electronic technology for research and to communicate by e-mail with their law clerks and other staff.
Gilbertson said the state court system is currently experimenting with computer systems that provide two-way video and audio capabilities.
"We have a lot of areas in the state that are very rural, and there are great distances from where a judge may be," Gilbertson said. "A two-way system, if deemed feasible, would allow a judge in Aberdeen to talk to a defense attorney and defendant in Sisseton 100 miles away.
"Many of our trial judges drive 10,000 to 15,000 miles a year through their circuit," he added. Placing a two-way video and audio system in every courtroom in the state, Gilbertson said, could eventually save the state a lot of money.
During its time in Vermillion this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments involving three separate death penalty cases.
"When you open up a case like that, it's a lot different, of course, than any other case you are going to look at it because of everything that is at stake," Justice Steven L. Zinter said. "We have procedures in the court. We allow extended oral arguments. We do virtually everything procedural to explore every avenue, to leave no stone unturned."
Konenkamp said dealing with death penalty cases is "a most somber responsibility," adding that his wife notices a difference in his demeanor when he returns home while mentally grappling with a capital punishment decision.
The justices were asked if the high rate of National Guard call-ups from South Dakota to serve in Iraq is raising any legal issues.
"Not at our level," Justice Judith Meierhenry said. Other South Dakota courts, however, may eventually notice activity related to the military action in the Middle East.
"Any time you see a upheaval in families, when people are taken out of their families and are thrust into situations that are completely different than they are used to," she said, "and you are out there in the middle of battle, obviously you are going to see things that could have an impact on the rest of your life."
Often, the court system's dealings relate directly with what is happening on the family level, Meierhenry said. "We get what's happening in society. In South Dakota, we pride ourselves on having good, strong beliefs and family support systems, and that hopefully will have a positive impact."
The justices work in a isolated atmosphere at their headquarters in Pierre. It isn't unusual for them to not see each other on a day-to-day basis, even though their offices are next to each other in the same corridor.
"We often have pretty busy days," Justice Richard Sabers said. "It's really a continuation of reading cases or editing cases or answering e-mail."
Sabers practiced law for 20 years in Sioux Falls before being appointed to the high court.
"It's a difficult, complicated task if you are a busy trial attorney, and this job is very, very busy from the standpoint of the extent of the reading that you do."
He joked that it's not unusual for the justices to need stronger prescription eyeglasses year-to-year. It was clear Tuesday, however, that Sabers greatly enjoys his work.
"I think it's a wonderful job," he said. "It is just an absolutely wonderful experience to work with some of the best people in the state, and I think it's probably extended my life 10 years just to get out of the trial racket."