Eye on KELOLAND: Excellence in law and friendship


Two longtime figures in the South Dakota law community are receiving a prestigious honor.

South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and the late Justice Steven Zinter will both be the recipients of this year’s McKusick Award.

It’s named after the late Marshall McKusick, who dedicated decades of his life to the legal profession and the USD School of Law.

South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson only has months left in this office at the State Capitol.

He considered stepping down a little sooner than mandatory retirement at age 70, but that changed with the passing of Justice Steven Zinter.

“There were newer justices on the court, and in a conference, it was decided that because I had been around long enough and kind of knew the system it would be helpful for me to stay on,” South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson said.

Chief Justice Gilbertson first started serving on the Supreme Court in 1995.

Justice Zinter would be appointed in 2002.

“If you would come here on a Saturday, every Saturday he’d be working here, and often times on Sunday too, besides the other five days,” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

The two men started building their bond back in the 70s at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

The classmates remained close friends over the years.

Chief Justice Gilbertson describes the fellow justice as “delightful” and someone with a “great sense of humor.”

“The day of his funeral I told Bishop Zellmer I said, ‘I just lost my best friend today.’ The bishop smiled and said, ‘Well, you’re the 12th person that told me that today,'” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

Justice Zinter died in 2018 after undergoing repair work on a hip bone.

“I asked him before he left I said, ‘Is this serious?’ He said, ‘Oh, absolutely not.'” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

The news he later received would leave him stunned.

“The night before he passed away, he was working with his law clerk over the phone and seemed to be in good spirits. The surgery was over. It had been totally successful, and that night his heart gave out. Of course, your heart and your hip bone don’t have much of a connection so nobody believes that it was caused by that surgery. It just happened,” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

While the two friends can no longer be neighbors at the State Capitol in Pierre, they will both share the honor that is the McKusick award.

“It was more prestigious to me personally because it was co-recipient, my good friend the late Justice Steven Zinter,” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

The award is presented by the University of South Dakota School of Law Student Bar Association.

“Steve was a magical person, and he left a tremendous legacy across South Dakota in a variety of capacities, but I think one of the most important things to remember about Justice Zinter was friendship. He made friends easily and kept them forever and David Gilbertson was one of his longest, closest friends. The opportunity to have this award reflects not only the excellence in the practice of law, but excellence of friendship is really special,” University of South Dakota School of Law Dean Neil Fulton said.

“I have no doubt, if he would have continued to live he would’ve worked until mandatory retirement. It was, besides his family, what he really lived for,” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

But now, it’s his legacy that lives on.

“I think Justice Zinter’s opinions will stand the test of time. When you look at an opinion written by him you’ll know it’s a quality opinion,” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

As for the Chief Justice’s legacy, he’ll let others make the judgment call on that.

“I hope I left this place better than I found it, and I’ll let others decide the specifics because it’s pretty hard to judge whether you succeeded or failed maybe in a task. I tried my best and I’ll let the citizens be the judge,” Chief Justice Gilbertson said.

But he’s leaving the office in January with no regrets and years of memories with his best friend.

The two will be honored during the virtual State Bar Convention on Thursday.

Justice Zinter’s family has provided KELOLAND News with a statement:

“We are honored that the USD School of Law Student Bar Association has chosen to celebrate Steve’s dedication to the legal profession and the legal community. We know he would be humbled to receive the McKusick award and honored to receive it alongside Chief Justice David Gilbertson.”

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