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How Does The South Dakota Circuit Court Work?

The South Dakota Circuit Court is a superior court of record. It is primarily a trial court and has civil and criminal jurisdiction. Under the Unified Judicial System of South Dakota, the Circuit Court has direct supervisory authority over the Magistrate Courts’ operations.

There are seven judicial circuits in South Dakota, as established by Chapter 16–6 of the Codified laws of South Dakota. Each judicial circuit covers different parts of the state. For example, the Seventh Circuit covers Pennington, Custer, Fall River, and Shannon, while the Second Circuit covers Minnehaha and Lincoln.

Each judicial circuit has a specified number of judges as prescribed by law. However, the South Dakota Circuit Court currently has a total of 44.

The Circuit Court possesses original jurisdiction in the following matters:

  • All actions or proceedings in chancery;
  • Cases involving the title or boundary to real property;
  • All actions for divorce or annulment of marriage;
  • All matters relating to probate, guardianship, conservatorship, and settlement of estates of deceased persons;
  • Proceedings relating to minors under chapters 26–7A, 26–8A, 26–8B, and 26–8C of the Codified Laws of South Dakota and;
  • All other cases where the law grants the court jurisdiction

The Circuit Court has original and concurrent jurisdiction over the following:

  • Felonies;
  • Misdemeanors;
  • All actions or proceedings for violation of any ordinance, by-law, or other law enforcement regulation

The Circuit Court has appellate jurisdiction over appeals from Magistrate Courts and administrative agencies. All appeals from the Circuit Courts go directly to the Supreme Court. 

To become a Circuit Court Judge, the candidate must:

  • Be a citizen of the United States;
  • Be a South Dakota resident;
  • Be a voting resident in the district, circuit, or jurisdiction of appointment or election; 
  • Be licensed to practice law in South Dakota.

Where a vacancy exists in any of the Circuits, the state Judicial Qualifications Commission sends nominations of two or more qualified persons to the Governor for an appointment. Alternatively, the Commission may select a highly qualified applicant by unanimous votes. 

The Judicial Qualifications Commission has outlined qualification criteria which aspirants must meet, as provided for under part II Section 3 of the Commission’s rules. These qualifications and qualities are grouped as personal attributes, competency and experience, and judicial capabilities. 

The names of qualified persons are sent to the Governor in alphabetical order, along with a copy of all investigative reports relating to each nominee. When the Governor makes an appointment, the new Judge shall hold office for the previous Judge’s unexpired term.

At the expiration of the tenure, the Judge shall be subject to approval or rejection votes by voting members of the circuit via a non-political ballot. Each Circuit Court Judge serves for eight years as provided for under Chapter 16–6–3 of the South Dakota Codified Laws.  The presiding Judge of the Circuit Court is selected by the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Chapter 16–6–31 of the Codified Laws of South Dakota makes it mandatory for Judges in the state to retire from office at the age of 70. However, there are some instances where the law may allow the Judge to hold office for a longer period. In such instances, the Judge is expected to conclude all pending cases unless the Supreme Court makes alternative arrangements.

Alternatively, a Circuit Court Judge may be removed upon the recommendation of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The Commission may only remove a Judge after receiving a complaint that must be approved by a majority of the Commission members. 

The Commission will only investigate complaints that are related to any of the following:

  • Violation of the judicial code;
  • Willful misconduct in office;
  • Habitual intemperance;
  • A disability which adversely affects performance;
  • Violation of constitutional provisions or state law;
  • Prejudicial conduct;
  • Any conduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute

Should the Commission find reasonable cause, it may recommend public censure, suspension, removal, or retirement to the Supreme Court. The Commission would then file a certified copy of its recommendation with the Clerk of the Supreme Court. The filed documents include a copy of the transcript of proceedings and conclusions reached. The Supreme Court may then take any action it deems appropriate.

Persons interested in attending sessions in any Circuit Court may use the court finder search provided by the South Dakota Unified Judicial System. Requestors interested in Circuit Court records may use the eCourts option. Interested persons would first be required to register for access.

The state has a records search program for both civil and criminal cases, excluding cases sealed by order of the court. Persons interested in information on a civil or criminal case may use the public access record search or the online query system. Note that access to these platforms may cost varying fees. For multiple inquiries, send an email request to 

Alternatively, interested persons may send written requests by mail or visit the courts for records. The South Dakota Unified Judicial System provides contact information for all South Dakota Clerks of Courts.