Justice Steven Zinter, a sitting judge and 16-year veteran of the South Dakota Supreme Court, died after what state officials are describing as a routine surgery he had Monday in Rochester, Minn.
"Supreme Court Justice Steven L. Zinter has passed away from complications related to surgery," said a statement from the South Dakota Unified Judicial System. "The Supreme Court and Unified Judicial System staff are heartbroken at the loss of such a fine person."
Zinter, 68, a Pierre resident and former Hughes County state's attorney, had been in a wheelchair since a diving accident in the early 1980s. He was having a pelvic procedure at the Mayo Clinic.
The unexpected death, coming just a week before the election of the state's next governor, leaves in doubt whether Zinter's replacement will be named by Gov. Dennis Daugaard or his successor.
"The court is weighing what makes the most sense," said Gregg Sattizahn, state court administrator of the Unified Judicial System. The South Dakota Supreme Court is a five-member body. The next string of arguments to be heard begins Nov. 5.
Not since the 1970s has a sitting justice died, which could create some issues when the Supreme Court returns to work next week.
"They can proceed with four justices and in the event there is a tie they would bring in another justice to resolve the issues," Sattizahn said. "In the interim, the court can either appoint a retired justice or appoint a circuit justice to fill in."
A vacancy typically takes six months to fill, said Sattizahn.
According to state law, a seven-member judicial qualifications commission comprising two representatives of the statewide judges conference, two members of the South Dakota Bar and of different political parties, and three citizens (and not more than two from one party) appointed by the Governor's Office put out what essentially amounts to an advertisement for a job opening. Anyone with a law license is eligible to apply. The commission sends on at least two applicants to the governor, who makes the appointment.
Zinter was appointed to the court in 2002 by Gov. Bill Janklow, and voters retained him in 2006 and 2014.
Reactions to Justice Zinter's passing poured in throughout the day on Tuesday.
Daugaard issued a statement Tuesday morning saying, “Linda and I were shocked to hear this news. Justice Zinter was a towering figure in South Dakota law and a consummate public servant. He overcame his disability to reach the pinnacle of his profession and he was a role model and inspiration to many."
“He was a giant in South Dakota’s legal community and judiciary and possessed a positive personality the likes of which I have never seen," Chief Justice David Gilbertson said. "We are all better for knowing him.”
State Sen. Billie Sutton and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, who are seeking to replace Daugaard as governor, issued statements as well on Tuesday.
“South Dakota has lost a tremendous public servant in the passing of state Supreme Court Justice Steven Zinter. He thoroughly understood and consistently upheld the rule of law, showing both compassion and justice through the judicial process. Bryon and I mourn the loss of a man who heeded the command 'to act justly and love mercy.' We pray his family finds comfort in these difficult days," Noem said in a news release.
In a tweet, Sen. Sutton wrote, "I am saddened to hear about Justice Zinter’s passing. He was a respected public servant who overcame adversity to serve our people and uphold our constitution. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Zinter is survived by his wife, Sandy, two daughters and five grandchildren. Daugaard ordered flags across the state fly at half-staff until the justice's funeral, which has not been set yet. A spokesman for the Governor's Office said there would be no comment yet on the search for Zinter's replacement.