South Dakota Supreme Court issues ruling on conflict of interest question

February 10, 2024

PIERRE — The South Dakota Supreme Court has overturned longstanding precedent and previous decisions of its own, allowing lawmakers to more freely enter into state contracts.

In a 29-page ruling, the court declared that legislators could now enter into most state contracts, departing from previous stricter interpretations of constitutional prohibitions.

“The contract restriction stated in Article III, § 12 is not a categorical bar on all contracts funded by the state,” Justice Mark Salter wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

The opinion distinguishes between contracts authorized through general appropriations bills, and those initiated by specific legislation.

Former Senator Jessica Castleberry of Rapid City was reprimanded and ultimately was forced to resign last year for accepting state funds for her private daycare business. According to the decision, Castleberry was correctly punished, while other conflicts in the Legislature are no  illegal. In a report by The Dakota Scout last year, dozens of other
lawmakers were also found to have state contracts.

However, the decision was not unanimous. Justice Janine Kern was the lone dissenter, writing in her own 11-page opinion that the majority’s interpretation disregarded established precedent and expanded the definition of conflicts of interest.

“This approach disregards the constitutional text and may ultimately prove difficult to interpret” Kern wrote.

Kern agreed, though, with the majority that a conflict can only arise if a lawmaker, former or present, voted on a specific law during their time in the Legislature.