PIERRE, S.D.(SDBA) — The South Dakota Supreme Court has overturned longstanding precedent and previous decisions of its own, allowing lawmakers to more freely enter into state contracts.
In a 29-page ruling, the court declared that legislators could now enter into most state contracts, departing from previous stricter interpretations of constitutional prohibitions.
“The contract restriction stated in Article III, § 12 is not a categorical bar on all contracts funded by the state,” Justice Mark Salter wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
The opinion distinguishes between contracts authorized through general appropriations bills, and those initiated by specific legislation. Former Sen. Jessica Castleberry of Rapid City was reprimanded and ultimately was forced to resign last year for accepting state funds for her private daycare business. According to the decision, Castleberry was
correctly punished, while other conflicts in the Legislature are not illegal. In a report by The Dakota Scout last year, dozens of other lawmakers were also found to have state contracts.
However, the decision was not unanimous. Justice Janine Kern was the lone dissenter, writing in her own 11-page opinion that the majority’s interpretation disregarded established precedent and expanded the definition of conflicts of interest.
“This approach disregards the constitutional text and may ultimately prove difficult to interpret… The majority opinion adopts a capacious understanding of interest,” Kern wrote.
Kern agreed, though, with the majority that a conflict can only arise if a lawmaker, former or present, voted on a specific law during their time in the Legislature.
Two legislative seats have remained vacant, as Gov. Kristi Noem has indicated that she would wait to make appointments to those seats until the court issued its opinion.
Governor Noem released the following statement following the ruling:
“Today, the South Dakota Supreme Court released its advisory opinion on state legislators’ interest in state or county contracts in response to Governor Noem’s request. The advisory opinion can be found here.
I want to thank the Supreme Court for answering my request to clarify the question of legislative contracts and its diligence in providing a succinct answer, and I want to thank the Attorney General and Legislature for supporting this request,” said Governor Noem. “The court acted swiftly to provide clarity for both the executive and legislative branches, and we are grateful for their work. My team is reviewing this decision and will be announcing legislative appointments very soon.”