This month on my 20th trip to Sturgis in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I finally did something I had been thinking about doing for years. I stopped in and visited the State Capitol in Pierre.
As a self-described simple country lawyer, who for more than three decades has made my living in the law, I happen to find such forays into the legal and governmental world of other places a matter of extreme interest.
By way of comparison, Missouri has a population of just over 6 million people, is ranked 18th in population.
South Dakota, on the other hand, has just over 800,000 people, and is the 46th most populous state in the nation, or fourth from the bottom. Yet it is larger in area than Missouri by more than 7,000 square miles. It is indeed is a land of wide open country.
The South Dakota State Capitol building in Pierre is as stately and as beautiful as any you will find, albeit much smaller than ours in Jefferson City, and from the moment I rode my Harley up to one of the many open parking spots in the circle drive near the main entrance and walked in, I was truly in awe of the stateliness, beauty and pristine condition.
There was nobody else in the building that I could see as I entered the majestic rotunda.
Immediately to my right was that which interested me most: The courtroom of the South Dakota Supreme Court. Just outside was an immaculate display depicting the history of the Court, with photos, maps and historical regalia. Very interesting. Very impressive.
I was able to look in and see the courtroom, which was locked. Beautiful and stately, but certainly small in comparison to the appellate courtrooms in Missouri. Five large chairs sat behind the grand, elevated bench. Five justices, just like the pictures on display. Missouri, by comparison, has seven justices on its Supreme Court, plus more than 30 more appellate judges that sit in three different appellate court districts, and decide appeals from the circuit courts in panels of three judges.
I meandered down the hallway to a door labeled “Clerk of the Supreme Court.” Below it was a smaller sign that said, “Please walk in.” And so I did.
Keep in mind that I was about a thousand miles into a 2,500-mile motorcycle excursion, and certainly must have looked it, with goggle glasses, a Harley T-shirt, ratty jeans, chain drive wallet and boots. Still, this is not a sight out of the ordinary in this part of the world during this time of year, and the one of the two ladies sitting behind the counter there greeted me with as friendly and fervent a “May we help you?” as one could ask for.
“I’m a lawyer from Missouri, and every year I think about visiting your Capitol, but this time I finally did it.”
“Well, welcome!” my greeter exclaimed. “Why don’t you take him over to visit the courtroom,” she said, handing the other lady the keys.
My guide, deputy clerk Sarah Gallagher, did just that, but first she handed me a souvenir laminated seal of the court and pencil with its logo. “We give these to all the school groups that visit,” she said with a smile.
We repaired across the hall to the courtroom, which she unlocked, and we went in.
“So this is where your Supreme Court sits. Beautiful. So you have five justices on your Supreme Court? How many Courts of Appeals do you have?”
“This is it,” she replied. “All appeals are heard by the Supreme Court, from stop sign violations to complicated tax cases. In fact, we just had a complicated sales tax case last week.”
Wow, I thought, a five-justice Supreme Court that hears every appeal in the state, with no divided panels and no intermediate court of appeals. That’s a lot different than our system.
Sarah told me that a lot of lawyers come from out of state, big cities, to argue appeals, and think that the South Dakota Supreme Court will be a pushover. But, she said, she’d match her Supreme Court justices against any anywhere, with less than a modest amount of pride.
I wouldn’t disagree, I told her. Some of the smartest lawyers and judges I have known in Missouri come from small towns and counties.
And so we concluded our conversation, and her many answers to my many questions about South Dakota and its judicial system, and from there it was off to a fine lunch at a place that Sarah recommended and on to the rally by nightfall.
I’m so glad that this year, I finally took the time to visit the South Dakota State Capitol, and the South Dakota Supreme Court.
What a great day.
– Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.