William Stegmeier of Tea on Monday gave the petitions to Secretary of State Chris Nelson and state Election Supervisor Kea Warne. If Nelson's office says the petitions have the required 33,456 valid signatures, the proposed constitutional amendment will go to a statewide vote in the November 2006 election.
The measure would strip judges of their traditional immunity from lawsuits related to their judicial acts. People could seek damages or criminal charges against judges they believe have harmed them by deliberately violating the law.
Stegmeier, who owns a business that makes livestock-feed grinders, said judges should be held accountable if they engage in misconduct.
"Right now, for all practical purposes, judges enjoy judicial immunity," Stegmeier said. "Even if they do something wrong, it's virtually impossible to hold them to account."
Opponents contend the measure is not needed because state circuit judges' errors can be corrected by normal appeals to the South Dakota Supreme Court. And if judges are guilty of misconduct, they can be voted out of office or disciplined by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, opponents argue.
Opponents also say the measure could lead to problems because the special grand jury that would handle complaints against judges could ignore the law or apply it differently in different cases.
Stegmeier said the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not effective because it is tied too closely to the legal profession. Most people do not know how to contact that commission, he said.
Judges should be held accountable when they act outside the law or their jurisdiction, Stegmeier said. "I'm sure most complaints will be thrown out."
Stegmeier said judges sometimes abuse their authority by preventing people from offering key evidence in trials. Judges should allow people to argue that even though something may be a technical violation of the law, it would be wrong to apply that law in the case, he said.
Stegmeier said he has not personally been hurt by judicial misconduct, but he became interested in the proposal after seeing some abuses by judges. The proposed amendment is based on a similar measure proposed in California but never made it onto that state's ballot.
It would eliminate judges' immunity in cases involving deliberate violations of law, due process or constitutional provisions and would take away judges' immunity for any deliberate disregard of material facts, acts outside their jurisdiction or the blocking of a lawful conclusion of a case.
People could file complaints against judges after the traditional appeals process has concluded. A special statewide grand jury would handle complaints, deciding whether a judge could be sued or face criminal charges. The grand jury would be drawn from the statewide list of registered voters and from nonvoters who submit their names to the pool. Lawyers, judges and law enforcement personnel could not serve on the special panel.
If the grand jury found probable cause of criminal conduct by a judge, it could indict the judge and create a special trial jury that would act as both judge and jury, deciding guilt and any sentence. That jury could judge both laws and facts, a departure from normal courtroom procedure in which a judge decides questions of law and a jury decides questions of fact.
The measure would apply only to South Dakota state judges, not federal judges.
Petitions were turned in last week for another constitutional amendment that would change the way real estate is assessed for property tax purposes. The Legislature also placed an amendment on the 2006 ballot to ban same-sex marriages by defining valid marriages as those between men and women.
A fourth measure was proposed to establish a state corporate income tax, but petitions had not been turned in for that proposal Monday, the final day for submitting signatures to place constitutional amendments on the November 2006 ballot.