PIERRE — Sixty-five of the 70 House members made clear they don’t want legislators to have a role in disciplinary matters involving circuit court judges and Supreme Court justices, or to help screen applicants and make nominations to the governor for judicial vacancies.
House members gutted a proposal from the Senate this week that would have expanded the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission so that the Legislature could appoint two people to it.
Now not much is left of the original bill sponsored by Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg.
He wanted two sitting members of the Legislature — one from the Senate and one from the House — to replace two of the three members representing the State Bar, the official organization for lawyers.
That met resistance in the Senate, so the seven-member commission was simply expanded to nine, in order to create the legislator seats. That revised version of Brown’s proposal cruised through the Senate, where there are no lawyers, on a 34-1 vote.
But it barely survived its hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, where it emerged 7-6.
Then the long knives came out on the House floor.
Most of Brown’s language was removed by way of an amendment from Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, who happens to be a lawyer.
He said politics are being injected and that none of the lawyer organizations — nor the qualifications commission, nor the judicial system — sought the legislation. “We don’t need this at all,” Stevens said.
Rep. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, a retired circuit judge, said the commission historically has been apolitical. “It should remain that way,” Johns said.
Responded Rep. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg, who said the Legislature as one of three equal parts of state government has a right to have a say in the discussion. Cronin said there isn’t a specific problem that Brown was trying to cure.
That was pounced upon by his seatmate, House Republican leader David Lust of Rapid City, who too happens to be a lawyer. “We’ve got far more important things to do than setting out to fix problems that don’t exist,” Lust said.
Brown and Cronin were the bill’s only sponsors. They quickly found out how outnumbered they were. When the House amendments were done, the original intent of the bill had been erased and two scraps were left from what the Senate had sent to the House.
One would have the three members from the State Bar elected by a majority of bar members, rather than the current practice of the bar president making those selections.
The other would have the governor’s two seats on the commission filled by anyone the governor chose, so long as they weren’t from the same political party.
Currently the law prohibits the governor from appointing judges, retired judges or members of the State Bar.
The bill, SB 198, now returns to the Senate for a decision whether to agree to the House version or send the bill into a conference committee of three senators and three representatives for negotiation.
One thing is for certain: The Senate won’t have any lawyers available for its side if the bill does get send to conference.