PIERRE, S.D. - A special panel has been created to keep an eye on judicial elections in South Dakota this year, state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson has announced.
The Judicial Election Campaign Intervention Committee will help candidates toe the line within new ethics standards established Jan. 1 as they seek to fill the state's 38 open judgeships, he said.
"The establishment of this judicial campaign oversight committee will encourage candidates to comply with the Code of Judicial Conduct and Guidelines," Gilbertson said. "The committee's formation is a step forward for the judiciary, a step taken in the best interest of the judicial system and of the public."
Gilbertson said the nine-member panel does not have disciplinary authority, but it will respond to campaign complaints and may issue public statements about ethics violations.
Robert A. Miller, retired chief justice, chairs the committee.
"The purpose of it is mainly to make sure that judicial campaigns are fairly conducted," he said Wednesday.
New ethics rules were adopted by the state Supreme Court in response to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said it was a constitutional violation of free speech to prevent judicial candidates from stating their views on disputed legal and political issues.
At the time, most states restricted what judicial candidates could say or do while campaigning in order to promote an image of fairness and independence for courts.
South Dakota's new relaxed rules permit candidates in judicial elections to do some things they could not previously do, such as attend political gatherings, make political contributions, and express views on cases and issues they are likely to deal with in court.
However, pledges and promises on cases and issues are forbidden if those commitments are inconsistent with the impartial performance of judges.
"A candidate should emphasize in any public statement the candidate's duty to uphold the law regardless of his or her personal views," states a key section of the revised ethics code.
Judicial candidates also may not misrepresent their qualifications or other facts about themselves or those of opponents.
The new rules additionally repealed a prohibition on the direct solicitation of campaign contributions by judicial candidates, previously allowed only by campaign committees formed by those candidates. Contributions of more than $1,000 are not allowed.
Miller said he expects the judicial campaign oversight committee to spend most of its time answering questions from candidates on what they can and cannot do under the new standards.
"We're here to assist the candidates in trying to resolve questions they may have as to whether what they're doing complies with the rules," he said.
If the panel discovers that a candidate has broken the rules, the committee can publicly name that person, Miller said.
"The purpose is to make the public aware that there is a candidate who isn't playing fair. We will respond to any complaints that may come from candidates or the public, suggesting that a candidate is violating the rules," he said. "We feel it's very important to let people know what is going on in the judicial elections."
Judicial candidates who break the rules of campaign conduct will be subject to discipline, Miller said.
"Discipline of the candidate or the judge would be done by the State Bar or the Judicial Qualifications Commission," he added.
A meeting to discuss the new ethics rules will be held in May, and all judicial candidates must attend, Miller said.
April 4 is the deadline for judicial candidates to file nominating petitions with the secretary of state. The petitions must carry the signatures of at least 50 registered voters from state court circuits where candidates are seeking judgeships.
There are seven circuits in South Dakota, and circuit judges are elected to eight-year terms. If judges retire or die before their terms are up, the governor appoints replacements. Most openings are filled in that manner, but those judges must win on the ballot within three years.
Kea Warne, state election supervisor, said Wednesday that nominating petitions are filtering in from candidates for judgeships. But she said no more than two people have filed yet in any contest.
It requires at least three candidates in a judgeship race for a June 6 primary election contest, Warne said. The two winners go on to the Nov. 7 general election, she said.
Judges frequently have no opponents and are automatically re-elected.
Also on the ballot this year will be all five state Supreme Court justices. They will have no opponents, however. Voters instead will decide if the justices should be retained for eight more years or kicked out of office. Vacancies are filled by the governor.