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Amendment E sparks debate

October 11, 2006


SIOUX FALLS (AP) - Disagreement continues on the effects of a South Dakota ballot measure that supporters claim is intended to rein in judges who go overboard and violate people's rights.

The proposed constitutional change in Amendment E would apply only to judges, supporters said Monday night at a debate in Sioux Falls.

But opponents said it is so broad that it will also apply to elected officials, such as members of school boards and county commissions. They also say that the proposal is so broad it would allow jurors to be fined or jailed.

"Anyone shielded by judicial immunity becomes a judge within the meaning of the initiative. That's what the drafter said," opponent Tom Barnett said.

Currently, judges have immunity from lawsuits over their official acts.

Supporter Jake Hanes said the only way to hold judges accountable is through the Judicial Review Commission.

"Everyone should be accountable. I mean, nobody is above the law, and judges in particular, legislating from the bench; there is no way to hold them accountable aside from the ineffective Judicial Qualifications Commission," Hanes said.

If a judge's assets were threatened, the judge would think twice about violating someone's rights, he said.

"They go after a judge's assets because it's about retribution," Barnett countered.

Language in the Judicial Accountability Initiative Law says decision-makers could be stripped of insurance coverage and as much as one-half of

retirement benefits, Barnett said, adding that the motive is revenge.

The attorney general's ballot explanation says the amendment calls for the appointment of 13 special grand jurors who would determine if those who make judicial decisions broke rules that are set by the special grand jury. The explanation defines those as making judicial decisions as prosecutors, judges and citizens serving on juries, school boards, city councils, county commissions and other boards.

"Who are we going to get to serve on our school boards, our city councils, if their homes and businesses are at risk?" Barnett said. "Worse yet, they have the choice to run for office, but our jurors don't have a choice. They're compelled to serve and Amendment E reaches jurors. We think that's reprehensible."

The proposal is a bad idea to add to the constitution, University of South Dakota Law School professor Chris Hutton said. The special grand jury would tell citizens what the law and facts are, she said.

"People are attempting to do an end-run around the system by saying instead 'we're going to have this group behind closed doors decide the laws and facts, not the Legislature and the judges who are implementing the law,'" she said.

Bob Kolbe, Minnehaha County Commission chairman, said if people don't like his decisions, they can vote against him.

"If they would sue me personally, that would leave me quaking in my boots," he said. "I don't know if I would want the job."

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