South Dakota Law requires that its Supreme Court Justices must retire at the age of 70, when the year’s service concludes. Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson will step down as Supreme Court Justice, and as Chief Justice, on Jan. 5, 2001.
Gilbertson chose a legal direction for his life when he was still in high school. “I worked at a corporate setting, in a grocery store, and didn’t think I would like that for a career,” said Gilbertson. “My mother was a nurse … no for me, and my father was a minister … again no for me, so it was law. Besides, I have always liked history and government.”
Gilbertson graduated from South Dakota State University in 1972. He was the first SDSU student to do so with three majors — history, political science, and geography — in just four years. And, he had been working at a local grocery store about 30 hours per week. “Obviously, I didn’t even own a television,” said Gilbertson. He then graduated in 1975 with his Juris Doctor from the University of South Dakota’s School of Law.
After graduation, he did trial work in Sisseton. “I wanted to get into a courtroom quickly, and I had been raised in the area as a young boy. You learn by doing. I was trying a murder case six months out of law school.” He won that case, getting a conviction of first degree manslaughter.
In 1986, Governor Janklow appointed Gunderson as a Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge. At the age of 35, Gilbertson was the youngest judge in the state at that time. “The major reason he appointed me was probably Janklow was aware of all the cases I tried in those previous 10 years,” said Gilbertson. Then, in 1995, at the age of 45, Gilbertson was appointed, again by Janklow, to the Supreme Court. In 2001, now at 51, he was voted in as Chief Justice.
“I saw it as a challenge; after working next to the previous Chief for four years. My first year or two, I learned what you need to do and when to do it. We have very good employees, and the other justices were also very helpful. It worked out well,” said Gilbertson.
“I think the major thing is our court system is proactive rather than reactive,” said Gilbertson, referring to the current drug and alcohol courts program. “What gets people into trouble being drunk, being on drugs, mental health. What you want to do is address the underlying reasons, and then you don’t see these people back in the system.”
Gilbertson said that the drug courts cost about $8,000 per person per year, while prison confinement averages about $22,000 per person per year. Drug courts are seeing about an 82 percent of people who do not reoffend, while the prison system sees around a 50 percent rate. Pierre has a drug court and an alcohol court. While in these alternate court programs, a person is required to hold a job or be attending a school, pay any child support, and maintain a home. This saves the state approximately $10 million per year. “We hope the children are living with them, rather than on welfare,” said Gilbertson. People do not hold such jobs or support their families if they are in the penitentiary.
The most unpleasant aspect of his job is Gilbertson recalls five death-row executions.
One of the many more-pleasant aspects of his job, said Gilbertson, is attending graduations for drug and alcohol courts. People literally go from the gutter to being drug/alcohol free. “They have actually said to me that the program has saved their lives. As being one who has helped start up the program, that gets to you,” said Gilbertson. “I think there is great potential to take these programs in the cities to the rural areas, through telehealth and mental health services. The rural areas have these problems, too. We are just starting to look into this.”
Gilbertson has no plans for after retirement, yet. “Guess I will have to reinvent myself,” he said. “I’m in good health. I’ll find something.” Though he has four grown children, he does not yet have any grandchildren. “My family are old-style Norwegians; my grandfather, father and I didn’t get married until after we were 30,” said Gilbertson. “Because of my job in Pierre, my wife, Deb, and I have been holding two homes. Consolidating into one will be a plus. Whether my wife finds my being around the house a problem; time will tell.”
“I don’t know how many people say they don’t have any regrets. At this point in my life, I’m close to saying that. It’s been a good run. And, it’s been a high honor serving the people of South Dakota,” said Gilbertson.
“Chief Justice Gilbertson is a uniquely visionary and collaborative leader,” said Justice Steven R. Jensen. “He knows exactly where he is headed, but is always willing to stop, listen and consider input from others before moving forward. He has tremendous ability to stay ahead of the curve by anticipating and addressing problems before they arise. Chief Justice Gilbertson has taken the Unified Judicial System through many innovative changes that have enhanced our system of justice for the citizens of South Dakota. But, perhaps his greatest contribution to the UJS has been his willingness to work with others, both in and out of the court system.”
Jensen was appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor Dennis Daugaard; sworn in on Nov. 3, 2017. Jensen represents the Fourth Supreme Court District consisting of Union, Clay, Yankton, Hutchinson, Hanson, Davison, Bon Homme, Douglas, Aurora, Charles Mix, Gregory, McCook, Turner and Lincoln counties.
“The Chief is a remarkable leader and judge,” said Justice Mark E. Salter. “He’s also a wonderful person who has made it his mission, along with all his other duties and priorities, to promote and sustain collegiality among the members of the court, all of whom share his commitment. As a result of his leadership, we don’t just get along well, we work better together and benefit from our collective efforts, even while maintaining our independent minds.”
Salter began as a member of the Supreme Court on July 9, 2018, following his appointment by Governor Dennis Daugaard. Salter represents the Second Supreme Court District which is Minnehaha County.
“I am the newest member of the Court, having been here just seven months,” said Justice Patty DeVaney. “In the short time frame I have been with the court, I have found Chief Justice Gilbertson to be a very kind man, whose door is always open. He made me feel welcome from day one after my appointment, and has graciously shared with me his insight and wisdom gleaned from his many years of service to the people of South Dakota. This made my transition to the court so much easier, and I will forever be grateful for that. It is very apparent that he cares deeply about the Unified Judicial System as a whole, its employees and the vital role each plays in making the system work. And, most importantly, he cares deeply about its impact, past, present, and future, on the citizens it serves.”
Justice Patricia J. DeVaney was appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor Kristi Noem; sworn in on May 23, 2019. DeVaney represents the Third Supreme Court District which includes the central, east central, south central, and west southern counties.
“Chief Justice David Gilbertson has devoted nearly four decades of his life to the service of the public, first as a circuit court judge then as a Supreme Court Justice,” said Justice Janine Kern. “He is South Dakota’s longest running Chief Justice, having served 19 years in this capacity. He has distinguished himself as a strong, effective leader both at the State and national level, serving as the president of the National Center of State Courts and the Council of Chief Justices. His vision and concern for those he is charged to serve led him to develop the Rural Attorney Program to provide access to justice by bringing lawyers to underserved areas. Under his leadership, South Dakota developed problem-solving courts, including DUI, drug, veteran, and two mental health courts in order to help those in the criminal justice system get the help they need to avoid incarceration and rejoin their communities as productive citizens. His personal contribution as a member and leader of the court system is remarkable and hard to quantify. This man with an uncommon amount of common sense, great legal acumen, integrity, and a caring heart has served the people of this State so well. We owe him a debt of gratitude for the legacy of his life of service.”
Justice Janine M. Kern was appointed to the Supreme Court on Nov. 25, 2014, by Governor Dennis Daugaard. Kern represents the First Supreme Court District, which includes Custer, Lawrence, Meade and Pennington counties.