South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has filled two legislative seats, one of them empty for months as she sought and awaited a state Supreme Court opinion on legislator conflicts of interest.
Last fall, Noem had asked the high court to weigh in on legislator conflicts of interests related to state contracts after a state senator resigned her seat and agreed to a settlement to pay back about $500,000 of federal coronavirus aid she received for her preschool business.
The court heard oral arguments last month in a rare meeting of the three branches of state government, and issued its its opinion on Friday, backed 4-1 by the justices.
Justice Mark Salter wrote: “The contract restriction stated in (the South Dakota Constitution) is not a categorical bar on all contracts funded by the State. Instead, it prohibits a legislator, or former legislator within one year following the expiration of the legislator’s term, from being interested, directly or indirectly, in contracts that are authorized by laws passed during the legislator’s term.”
Top Republicans in South Dakota’s GOP-led Legislature welcomed the opinion for providing clarification. They don’t expect upheaval for the Legislature.
“It looks to me like a sound decision rooted in the plain meaning of (the constitutional provision),” said Republican House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, an attorney. “It means that legislators can still have driver’s licenses, they can still get park passes, and that it’s still illegal for the Legislature to pass a law and then turn around and get a contract based on it.”
Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, also an attorney, said he isn’t aware of a lawmaker who has a conflict under the court’s opinion.
In a statement Friday, Noem said: “The court acted swiftly to provide clarity for both the executive and legislative branches, and we are grateful for their work.”
On Saturday, Noem named former state representative Kristin Conzet, a business owner in Rapid City, to a vacant House seat. On Monday, the governor appointed Mike Walsh, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and retired law enforcement officer in Box Elder who runs a polygraph examinations and background investigations business, to the Senate seat.
South Dakota’s ongoing legislative session began last month.
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