PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A legislative panel heard Tuesday about ways that COVID-19 has affected South Dakota’s state courts.
Greg Sattizahn, the Unified Judicial System’s administrator, told lawmakers there have been many fewer arrests and criminal cases during the pandemic that’s now starting its third year. He said jury trials stopped for a while, and the 180-day rule remains suspended that normally requires a defendant be brought to trial within that period after a first appearance.
COVID-19 changed the relationship for people on probation too, according to Sattizahn. Rather than meet face to face with officers checking on them, he said, they started sending photos showing their whereabouts, or waved outside their residences as officers drove past.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also learned that South Dakota’s state courts face the same difficulties hiring people as other government agencies and businesses do in the pandemic. Sattizahn said UJS has 20 vacancies now and turnover exceeds 12%.
Senator Art Rusch, R-Vermillion, brought up South Dakota’s mandatory retirement age of 70 for circuit judges and Supreme Court justices, noting that both he and another committee member, Senator Timothy Johns, R-Lead, were retired judges. Rusch, the panel’s chairman, said that the late justice Richard Sabers had discussed allowing older judges to continue serving.
Sattizahn said he wasn’t aware of any current effort to change the laws and said UJS had declined to take a position on past efforts. He said circuit judges right now don’t need more staff, but the staff could benefit from higher pay.
“Our employees is the challenge,” Sattizahn said. He said the governor’s recommended statewide salary increase of 6% was the highest in his 21 years as a state employee.
Sattizahn finished his presentation with the request that Chief Justice Steven Jensen made for $5 million to improve security in the 65 court locations in 63 of the 66 counties throughout South Dakota.
Governor Kristi Noem has recommended transferring $5 million. The security fund now gets $10,000. “That’s not a lot of enticement,” Sattizahn acknowledged.
The state court system doesn’t pay rent to county governments for the office space in courthouses, Sattizahn said. The $5 million would be distributed on a 75-25 share with each county. The needs vary widely, he said, because each courthouse is “so different.”
Seven pilot projects, one per circuit, are planned to start. “We’re hoping to learn a lot from that,” Sattizahn said. He added, “I see that money being used pretty quickly.”