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Judge settles Jerauld County state's attorney dispute dating to June election

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- More than 10 months after their ballots were cast, voters in Jerauld County know for certain which of two lawyers is their state's attorney.

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- More than 10 months after their ballots were cast, voters in Jerauld County know for certain which of two lawyers is their state's attorney.

Judge Jon Erickson released a decision Monday in favor of Dedrich "Deach" Koch, of Gann Valley in Buffalo County. As a result of the decision, Koch will keep his job as state's attorney in Jerauld County, which he won by beating incumbent Casey Bridgman, of Wessington Springs in Jerauld County, in the June Republican primary election and by running unopposed in the November general election.

Koch was sworn into office in January, but then Bridgman filed a lawsuit seeking to retain the office on technicalities. Later in January, Erickson ruled Koch had lawfully won the election, but allowed Bridgman to file a written brief on several legal issues in the case. Erickson's latest decision rejects Bridgman's legal arguments.

"I'm glad that the judge ruled in my favor," Koch said Tuesday in an interview with The Daily Republic. "I think it's the correct rule."

Bridgman claimed Koch was not a legitimate candidate because Koch also won the state's attorney position in Buffalo County in November, which Bridgman alleged was a violation of a state law that says one person cannot be a candidate for two offices. Koch resigned from the Buffalo County state's attorney position before he started in Jerauld County.

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Erickson rejected Bridgman's argument and found the two positions aren't mutually exclusive.

"These are two part-time offices that are not in conflict with each other," Erickson's decision says. "Koch could easily fulfill both offices since they are part time."

However, just by running in simultaneous elections in Jerauld and Buffalo counties, Koch violated the law, the decision says. But because the violation "did not prevent a free and fair expression of the will of the voters of Jerauld County," the decision says, the election does not need to be set aside.

Bridgman also claimed Koch could not be state's attorney because he does not reside in Jerauld County, an alleged violation of Jerauld County policy.

According to court documents, a Jerauld County policy states "its employees should reside within its boundaries ... or move your residence to the county within 60 days from your date of employment."

State law says in counties with fewer than 5,000 residents, no state's attorney is disqualified from holding office for not residing in that county, as long as the state's attorney resides in a contiguous county. Buffalo County's population is 1,912 and Jerauld County's is 2,071.

"The statute and policy are in conflict," the decisions says. "Therefore, state law preempts the conflicting policy."

Erickson noted there are 14 other counties in South Dakota where the state's attorney lives in a neighboring county.

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Bridgman also challenged the constitutionality of the law itself by claiming it was "a special law regulating the affairs of Jerauld County," the decision says, which is prohibited by the South Dakota Constitution.

"The classification is by population and all those counties in that same class are affected the same," the decision says.

Allowing a resident of a different county to run for state's attorney in Jerauld County did not infringe on the rights of voters, the decision says.

"Instead, the voters of Jerauld County were given more options to choose from," the decision says. "If they had a concern that a candidate from outside the county would not adequately know or represent their needs, they were entitled not to vote for that candidate."

Calls made Tuesday by The Daily Republic to Bridgman's office were not immediately returned.

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