Judicial accountability bill is full of holes

Judicial accountability bill is full of holes
An initiated constitutional amendment is going to be on the 2006 ballot. The question on the November 2006 general election ballot will be known as Constitutional Amendment E.

Obviously a lot of people signed the petitions, with the sales pitch that it is for holding judges accountable, but we wonder how many people actually read the proposal in its entirety. From our vantage point, it looks like Swiss cheese � full of holes.

Proponents have named it the Judicial Accountability Initiative Law, so they could use the catchy acronym JAIL. The measure would, proponents say, "punish wayward judges with civil suits and even criminal charges."

And who are the "wayward judges"? Well, pretty simple: any judge that makes a decision that one or more of the affected parties aren't happy with, could be "punished" under JAIL!

The measure would set up a Special Grand Jury, with 13 jurors, drawn from the state's voter registration lists, each serving one year and paid more than $100,000 a year each.

Tom Barnett, executive director of the State Bar of South Dakota, noted that the grand jury would be "empowered to rule on the law and the facts. In other words, it is a super-legislature having the power to overrule the Legislature, decide which laws (or constitutional provisions) to enforce or ignore and then also decide the facts."

JAIL would have a budget of more than $2.5 million. The Legislature would be required (no choice) to establish a Special Grand Jury facility (centrally located) but not within a mile of any judicial body (talk about paranoia!).

And this is cute: it will be funded through fines, fees and forfeitures, but if that doesn't produce enough money, the Legislature will have to (again no choice) impose "appropriate surcharges upon the civil court filing fees of corporate litigants."

OK, so you have an individual who wants to file a civil complaint against a judge (say a convicted felon who sues because the sentence is perceived as too harsh, or a private citizen who believes the sentence is too lenient) and they have to pay a filing fee, right?

Well, not necessarily, because the amendment provides for a $50 filing fee, but you can file a statement that you are impoverished OR (get this) because you "object to such fee." You could drive a large cattle truck through that hole in the cheese.

There are so many more holes, they are too numerous to comment on. For instance, law enforcement officials are prohibited from serving on the Grand Jury, but felony drunk drivers, convicted drug dealers and child pornographers can! The move is apparently aimed at "activist judges," but it covers all persons shielded by judicial immunity ? meaning every school board, city council, county commission, professional licensing board, in fact every citizen board in the state exercising quasi-judicial powers.

And where is the problem in South Dakota? We vote on our judges ? citizens have an absolute right to reject a particular Circuit Court judge if they believe they will be treated unfairly ? and all parties have an absolute right to appeal a judge's decision to the Supreme Court.

This is going to be one of those issues where you need to move from the headlines to the fine print and carefully read the amendment. From doing that, our conclusion is: it looks like Swiss cheese, but it smells like Limburger!

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