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State's top judge opposes removing bar exam for lawyers

Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court Steven R. Jensen
Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court Steven R. Jensen

The chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court is criticizing efforts to remove bar exam requirements for lawyers.

The bill was rejected last year. The state’s top judge says he wants to avoid similar legislation this year. But the lawmaker plans to bring it again.

Republican State Representative Mary Fitzgerald, R-St. Onge
Republican State Representative Mary Fitzgerald, R-St. Onge

State Representative Mary Fitzgerald says changes to the bar exam is creating a shortage of lawyers in the state. The Republican from St. Onge says many counties in South Dakota don’t have lawyers.

“Those shortages are with public defenders and state attorneys’ offices,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s really affected the people of South Dakota who probably need representation the most.”

Fitzgerald says she’s bringing another bill to remove the bar exam
requirements to become a practicing lawyer. However, she says the bill will require 1000-hours of apprenticeships.

“Preferably that would be with state’s attorneys and public defenders, but it won’t be limited to that,” Fitzgerald says. “I think that’s an excellent training ground for lawyers. You go to court all the time and you’re faced with other lawyers and situations. It provides an excellent training ground for lawyers.”

But Chief Justice Steven Jensen is opposed to the idea. He made that clear during his state of the Judiciary address—a typically apolitical speech for lawmakers during the opening week of legislative session.

Jensen says bar exam pass rates dipped in 2014 in South Dakota and nationally. He says the portion of the exam most often failed is developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

“Some of the criticism of the bar exam is that it is too hard. Respectfully, the process to assess competence must be rigorous," Jensen says. "Lawyers occupy unique positions of trust and responsibility. Clients place their confidence in lawyers to represent them in questions concerning their property, their liberty and, in most serious cases, their very lives.”

Jensen formed a court study group last year to study the lawyer shortage and admissions process. He says the group will meet throughout 2023.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.