Eye on KELOLAND: Setting down the gavel

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A change in leadership is coming to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The state’s longest serving chief justice is retiring.

Chief Justice David Gilbertson marks his final day shortly after the new year.

Even as a high schooler, Chief Justice David Gilbertson knew a career in law would be a good fit.

“I was working in a grocery store chain and I decided that I was not the kind of person that worked well taking orders from somebody else,” South Dakota Supreme Court Cheif Justice David Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson started law school at the University of South Dakota in the 1970s.

“In those days they taught by intimidation or fear to teach you to think on your feet and just to survive that first year was a struggle for all of us,” Gilbertson aid.

Of course that didn’t stop him, and he’d be faced with a big test not long after graduating.

“Through fortuitous circumstances, I was trying a murder case six months out of law school. I was able to get a conviction. It was rather daunting, but I just took it one step at a time and did the best I could and that’s the way it turned out,” Gilbertson said.

In 1986 the late Governor Bill Janklow appointed him as a circuit judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit.

He received another appointment from Janklow in 1995, this time to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

“Nobody expects when they go on the South Dakota Supreme Court the volume of work that’s going to be done. The amount of reading is incredible. It’s 2,000 pages a month, minimum and 12-14 hour days sometimes just reading and you have to understand what you’re reading. You’re not just perusing through a novel. Every line counts,” Gilbertson said.

Not long after his appointment, a death penalty case was presented to the state’s highest court.

“So that was my introduction to the Supreme Court was a death penalty case,” Gilbertson said.

In 2001, members of the South Dakota Supreme Court chose Gilbertson to be chief justice.

“That position doesn’t come open very often. Chief Justice Miller, my predecessor, had it for 10 years and so I decided to apply and the other justices, all who had more time on the court and were older than I was, decided that I would be an appropriate chief justice,” Gilbertson said.

As chief, Gilbertson advocated for problem solving courts.

The first drug court was established in 2007, and more specialty courts have followed.

“I guess I take great satisfaction in drug courts, alcohol courts, mental health courts, veterans courts because those people had committed crimes that were felonies and they were headed to the pen. But why did they commit the crime? Because they were an addict. They were an addict to alcohol, to drugs, maybe a mental health issue. And they were going to continue to commit those crimes because most felons get out,” Gilbertson said.

But these kinds of courts can help stop the cycle and in some cases save lives.

“A lot of them will just look you in the eye and say, ‘this program saved my life; I hadn’t been in it I’d be dead by now,’ and the other option they’d be in the pen,” Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson will leave his office in the South Dakota State Capitol on January 5th.

But as he prepares to retire don’t expect him to be his own judge.

“I’ll let someone else figure that one out because I’ve never worried about legacies. I was just trying to do my job, serve the citizens of South Dakota, and try to bring forth programs that would benefit the citizens of South Dakota,” Gilbertson said.

But he is certain of this:

“You know there are very few people in life that probably at the end of their career when they’re going into retirement can say they have no regrets, that they got to do what they wanted to do. I can honestly say I got to do what I wanted to do and I have no regrets. It’s been a great ride,” Gilbertson said.

Justice Steven Jensen will serve as the next chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court.

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