Wilbur will be second woman to serve on SD Supreme CourtNew justice trying to decide whether to sit on panel as court starts its next session on Monday.
By: Bob Mercer, The Daily Republic
PIERRE — Justice Judith Meierhenry no longer is the only woman to have served on the South Dakota Supreme Court.
Nine years after the choice of Meierhenry made history, a different governor, Dennis Daugaard, formally appointed Lori Wilbur to be her successor Tuesday.
Wilbur took the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson in an afternoon ceremony at the University of South Dakota law school’s courtroom.
Wilbur, a 1977 graduate of the law school in the same class as Meierhenry, becomes the second woman in the state’s history to be a member of the Supreme Court.
“Isn’t that incredible?” Wilbur said. “I idolized her then. Then I became a ‘baby’ judge. She was a model to emulate.”
Meierhenry, 67, had announced her retirement plans in the USD courtroom when the Supreme Court met there in March during one of its annual visits to the university.
Wilbur turns 59 on Sept. 17 and has been a circuit judge in Pierre since her November 1998 election.
“I loved what I did as a circuit judge and a magistrate judge, which was deal directly with people and their problems. I’m a problem solver,” she said.
Wilbur and Meierhenry met Tuesday morning to discuss the transition ahead.
The Supreme Court’s next term starts Monday, and Wilbur was trying to determine whether to immediately be one of the five justices considering the three dozen latest cases.
Applications for the pending vacancy were due in late April to the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. The screening panel must provide at least two recommendations for the governor to consider for circuit judge and Supreme Court justice vacancies.
Wilbur said she received an interview with the governor Aug. 1. He contacted her on the evening of Aug. 10 to offer the appointment.
“I was thrilled. I knew immediately ‘yes’ was the answer,” she said Tuesday morning in a telephone interview.
Her experience includes serving as a Supreme Court clerk early in her career and later work as a magistrate judge. Most recently, she has been the presiding judge for the Sixth Circuit.
She has also served as an assistant state attorney general and as a lawyer for the state Bureau of Personnel, Legislative Research Council and Board of Regents.
Wilbur will serve the Supreme Court’s Fourth District. She recently took an apartment on the south side of Sioux Falls. She said it wasn’t easy to find a suitable place in four days.
Wilbur officially established residency Tuesday morning in Lincoln County as a registered voter within the Fourth District. The next step was to resign as a circuit judge because she no longer is a resident of the Sixth Circuit.
Venhuizen said the governor then could appoint her to the Supreme Court post for the Fourth District.
The governor recently received an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court that gave the governor wide berth to choose the new justice.
In a 3-2 decision authored by the chief justice, the court’s majority said a governor can appoint a justice to the Supreme Court from any place and without regard to whether the person was a resident of the district where the Supreme Court vacancy occurred.
The majority said the only residency requirement is that the appointed person, before taking the oath to be a justice, must become a legal resident of the proper Supreme Court district.
Venhuizen said the Judicial Qualifications Commission gave the governor a list of 10 people to consider for the Meierhenry vacancy. Daugaard reportedly interviewed four. None of the names other than Wilbur has been publicly released.
Two of the four who received interviews were from the Fourth District, while two, including Wilbur, were from outside the district, according to Venhuizen. He said there were two men and two women interviewed.
Only two of the 10 people nominated by the commission lived in the Fourth District, Venhuizen said.
Daugaard had known both Lori Wilbur and her late husband, prominent Pierre lawyer Brent Wilbur, on a casual basis for many years.
“They’re not close friends, but they’ve been friendly acquaintances for a long time,” Venhuizen said. “He (the governor) just felt like Lori was the complete package in a lot of ways. Lori has a really good reputation. There was barely a negative word said about her.”
During her time as a circuit judge, Wilbur has been repeatedly invited to sit as an acting member of the Supreme Court when a justice needed to step aside from a case.
One of the biggest cases in South Dakota’s government history currently is pending before the Supreme Court regarding the state’s schoolfunding system. Wilbur decided the case at the circuit level in favor of the current funding system.
Meierhenry’s imminent departure makes more likely the Supreme Court will release that decision soon. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on Jan. 11.
Meierhenry, 67, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2002 by then-Gov. Bill Janklow. She was the first woman to serve on the state’s high court and had previously been a circuit judge for 14 years in Sioux Falls.
Meierhenry was a school teacher before returning to law school and graduating in 1977 in the same USD class as Wilbur.
Meierhenry served in several Cabinet posts in the Janklow administration during the 1980s and was a senior manager and assistant legal counsel for Citibank for three years. Her husband is Mark Meierhenry, who was state attorney general from 1979 through 1986.
Venhuizen said Wilbur plans to permanently relocate to the Sioux Falls area with the appointment to the Supreme Court.
“Her mother and both of her daughters live there,” he said. “She stayed there last night. She’s going to the Canton courthouse this morning to register.”
Venhuizen acknowledged “anyone can file a legal challenge” regarding the residency-timing question. He said the series of steps under way today are designed to meet the court’s standard as expressed in the advisory opinion.
“The process she is going through would seem to me to satisfy all five justices,” he said. “I think better safe than sorry.”