In a public announcement in June 2020, then-Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson announced that Steven Jensen ’88 would succeed him as South Dakota’s highest court’s supreme justice—its 50th and the first new Chief Justice in 20 years.
After 30 years in law, Steven Jensen made the shift to serving as Chief Justice on the South Dakota Supreme Court in January 2021. Three years earlier, in November of 2017, Jensen’s wife and children stood by in support as he raised his right hand and took his oath in the courtroom of the University of South Dakota’s Knudson School of Law.
“The Supreme Court is only as good as those justices called to serve on it,” said David Gilbertson in 2017, at Jensen’s Supreme Court induction. “Today, we welcome onto the court one of the best, Steven Jensen.” By that time, Jensen had built an impressive resume that included service that helped reform and improve the state’s judicial system.
Although his career has reached great heights, Jensen’s roots run deep in rural South Dakota.
His great-great-grandfather immigrated from Norway to a homestead near Wakonda, South Dakota, and that land still belongs to the Jensen family. Jensen’s father met Jensen’s mother, a California native, while stationed on the west coast with the U.S. Navy. The couple settled on the family land near Wakonda and there, farmed and raised their children.
One of three siblings, Jensen graduated from Wakonda High School and from there chose to follow in his older sister’s footsteps and attend Bethel University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was overwhelming living in Minneapolis at first, Jensen said, being a small-town Midwestern kid, but he soon settled into life on campus.
During his sophomore year, a faculty member pulled him aside after class to tell him that she believed he had potential, something Jensen describes as a “watershed moment.”
That moment helped cement Jensen’s decision to take an occupational route other than operating the family farm. Once woven into the fabric of college life at Bethel, he began to develop good study habits for the first time and had a formative internship experience in Washington, D.C., with a great lawyer mentor who discussed the opportunities to do good things for individuals and society in the field of law.
It was at this time that Jensen’s interests began to turn to law. Jensen confessed that while he always enjoyed work on the farm, he never picked up the mechanical ability of his father, who could fix anything with some pliers and baling wire.
Jensen met his wife, Sue Nelson—sister of former South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson—in South Dakota’s capital city after his law school years, while he was completing a clerkship with Justice Richard Sabers on the South Dakota Supreme Court. Sue was an intern in the secretary of state’s office. The couple has been married for 31 years and have two sons, Ryan and Andrew, and a daughter, Rachel; a son-in-law, Blake Roberts, and twin granddaughters, born in 2019.
Upon graduating from USD Law in 1988 and completing a one-year clerkship with the South Dakota Supreme Court, Jensen was recruited by the Crary Huff Law Firm in Sioux City, Iowa, to help develop its South Dakota practice, as the firm planned to open an office in the newly created community of Dakota Dunes. Jensen practiced for 14 years in both South Dakota and Iowa, handling civil litigation.
Darrell Jesse ’88, a classmate and roommate of Jensen’s, worked at the same Crary Huff branch, where he is now partner. Jesse joined the firm in 1994, five years after Jensen did.
“It was fairly clear Steve had the intellectual ability to, and did, finish near the top of our law school class, although he is humble by nature and would never let you know how well he was doing,” Jesse recalled. “Having grown up on a family farm, he very much had a strong work ethic and was a good classmate and roommate.
“He was an extremely capable lawyer and generally obtained very good results for his clients, particularly in litigation matters and as a trial lawyer,” he continued. “As a partner he had a positive influence on the firm with his calm and level-headed approach.”
Jensen began at the helm of Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court in January 2021, succeeding retiring Chief Justice David Gilbertson. Filling the shoes of someone with as prolific a career as Gilbertson is certainly no small chore, but Jensen plans to continue much of the work that Gilbertson began during his tenure as Chief Justice, while also continuing to strengthen the operation of the court system in South Dakota.
Jensen is wholeheartedly dedicated to the operations of the court and its nearly 600 employees and $58 million operating budget.
“My main focus as Chief Justice will be to continue to improve the core functions of our court system,” he said. “First and foremost, this means that our courts are applying the rule of law in every case in a fair and impartial manner.
A significant part of this task includes treating people with respect and dignity and affording them a fair opportunity to be heard. A court system that operates under the rule of law and provides a forum for the fair resolution of disputes is critical to keep our society functioning.”
Jensen hopes to continue to strengthen the core functions of the court by continuing to attract the best and brightest lawyers to become judges. But Jensen notes that judges also must have the highest character and a desire to see justice done under the rule of law in every case. Jensen acknowledges that even the best judges are imperfect and can make mistakes, but “they must care about the welfare of every person that appears in front of them. A good judge can never lose that attribute.”
Jensen also highlights the importance of maintaining excellence in the judicial staff working in the courts. This means attracting and retaining clerks, court services officers, court reporters and administrative staff that are able, skilled and well-trained. “Our judicial staff are often the first and the last faces of justice that people entering our court will see,” Jensen stated. “We have more and more pro se individuals [those unrepresented by an attorney] entering our courts because they are unable to afford an attorney. Our staff plays a crucial role in seeing that every person has access to the courts.”
Pro se individuals can obtain forms from the UJS website to help them file pleadings in certain proceedings, but they often need direction in not just being at the right place and right time, but also with the complexities of presenting their case in court. “While our judges and staff cannot provide legal advice to litigants, the importance of patiently addressing and answering questions for pro se litigants has become a larger part of the courts’ role in providing access to litigants,” he explained.
Jensen also believes that continued training and mentoring is an important part of maintaining excellence in the court system.
“As the law continues to develop and the duties of our judicial staff change, the importance of well-trained judges and court staff cannot be overstated,” he said. “The UJS has always provided training to judges and employees of the court system, but we want to continue to enhance and improve our training as a court system. It is also important that each of us have a desire to continue to grow and learn in our roles as judges and court staff.”
Jensen added that “after 30 years in the law, I continue to learn every day both from the law books and from those around me.”
Jensen also marvels at the incredibly important and difficult work of the court system. “Our judges in domestic cases must decide where, and with whom, children will live, are involved daily in protecting those who have lived in abusive and unhealthy situations and often hear about some of the worst of crimes committed against humanity. Balancing the interests of society, the accused, and victims in these cases is a daunting task,” he said.
Jensen believes that people often take for granted the daily work of the courts in resolving disputes, enforcing contracts and maintaining a fair and impartial forum where grievances can be resolved. “People can generally trust that most individuals and businesses will follow through with their word, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because there is a rule of law that will be fairly enforced by our courts. The work of our courts keeps society functioning and impacts nearly everyone,” he said.
Jensen also acknowledges the ongoing legacy of former Chief Justice David Gilbertson and his vision in starting the drug court programs in South Dakota. There are 18 such courts across the state that were all started during Gilbertson’s term as Chief Justice. These courts provide long-term treatment and intense supervision to those addicted to drugs and alcohol and those suffering from mental health disorders, which lead to involvement in the court system. There are also two specialty courts designed specifically to address these issues for military veterans. “The specialty courts provide an opportunity for rehabilitation to non-violent individuals involved in the criminal justice that would otherwise likely wind up sitting in prison at a much greater cost to society,” Jensen said. He vows to give South Dakota’s drug programs continuing attention as they continue to mature and grow across the state. “These programs not only help people to live productive lives again, but also impact families of those subject to substance abuse.”
Jensen also wants to strengthen relationships between the bench and the bar. He said, “The roles of judges and attorneys are different, but the roles of advocates and neutral decisionmakers are integral to our system of justice. It is important that we collaborate to continue to improve our system of justice.”
As for his future, Jensen says nothing is concrete. “I’ll serve my term as Chief Justice and then we will see what happens, after my four-year term. Longevity has its benefits, but I believe there is always room for new ideas. I am new enough in the position that we’ll see what the next few years brings and whether I have been able to accomplish some of what I set out to do.”
Faced with the question of “What do you hope your legacy will be?” Jensen gave pause. “I really believe my role as Chief Justice is much larger than me or my legacy. However, I hope I’m thought of as having high integrity, someone who cares about people and the delivery of justice and that I am willing to lead for the right reasons.”
According to Jesse, Jensen can rest easy knowing that sentiment is overwhelmingly true. “We are fortunate in South Dakota to have someone of his character and caliber serving on the Supreme Court and as the Chief Justice.”