PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A special committee will look at how South Dakota decides whether lawyers should be admitted to practice in the state.

The South Dakota Supreme Court ordered the study. It comes amid debate nationwide and in South Dakota about the process. South Dakota requires most applicants pass an examination and meet other standards.

Legislation from Representative Mary Fitzgerald, R-Spearfish, earlier this year sought to loosen South Dakota’s process. She proposed automatically admitting South Dakota residents who were graduates from the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law. Her bill died after its first hearing in a House committee.

South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Justice announced the new group’s formation Monday. He issued a statement on behalf of the court.

“The court has a high degree of confidence in the standardized bar examination, administered in 48 other states, that has been used to measure legal competence of applicants to the South Dakota Bar for nearly forty years,” his statement said.

He continued, “However, the court recognizes the legal landscape continues to change in South Dakota and throughout the country. As such, it is time to review our admission process as we plan for the future of the legal profession in South Dakota.

“The court’s overarching goal is to maintain an admission process that is fair, ensures attorneys are available to meet the future needs of individuals both in rural and urban communities, and most of all, protects the public by maintaining a process for determining minimum competence of every applicant to the South Dakota Bar.”

The new committee’s members are:

  • Neil Fulton, USD law dean.
  • Jack Hieb, Aberdeen attorney.
  • Sheridan Anderson, Pierre, chief of legal research for South Dakota Supreme Court.
  • Josey Blare, Sioux Falls attorney.
  • Dennis Duncan, Sioux Falls attorney.
  • Aaron Eiesland, Rapid City attorney.
  • Denise Langley, Pierre attorney, Access to Justice.
  • Lisa Marso, Sioux Falls attorney, South Dakota State Bar Association president.
  • John Richter, Pierre attorney.
  • Mark Vargo, South Dakota attorney general.
  • Eric Whitcher, Rapid City, Pennington County public defender.

The panel includes some of the people who testified on Fitzgerald’s diploma-privilege proposal, such as Eiseland who supported it, and some who spoke against it, such as Hieb and Fulton.

Fulton addressed the topic in the March issue and the October issue of the State Bar of South Dakota newsletter.

In a KELOLAND interview Monday, Chief Justice Jensen said the group will hold an organizational meeting in December and will spend the next 12 months on the work. Jensen said any recommendations would go to the Supreme Court for consideration. If the court decides to accept any that would require rule changes, the justices will hold a public hearing, he said.

“The advantage of the bar exam is it allows portability for our applicants,” Jensen said. For example, a South Dakota lawyer who passes the South Dakota exam can practice in other states such Iowa, Minnesota or Nebraska, and vice versa. “Those portability advantages of the bar exam are something that I think is one of the reasons that the bar exam has been so popular over the years to allow lawyers to easily transition.”

Jensen called the exam “an excellent” measure of competence. “It’s well vetted, it’s objective, it looks at substantive areas of law, the core areas, the ability of an individual both to understand the law and to also apply the law to the facts of a particular case,” he said.