For a number of weeks, I’ve been observing the coverage of a news story in which I was somewhat involved. While I’m proud of the years I spent as a journalist, my view of the profession — already damaged when I left it — wasn’t bolstered by what I saw.
I don’t think I’m breaking any rules now so, yes, I was on the “short list” (if 11 names is short) for the appointment to the South Dakota Supreme Court. I did not get it but the person who did, Circuit Judge Glen Severson, is eminently qualified and that’s what is most important. I also appreciated the way the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and the governor’s office handled the process and the interviews. In fact, rather than delegate it to a staff member, Gov. Rounds took the time to call me personally before the announcement was made so I didn’t hear it elsewhere first.
For those who don’t know, individuals interested in a judicial vacancy must file an application with the JQC. After investigations of and interviewing the applicants, it gives the governor a list of “two or more qualified persons.” The state Constitution requires the governor appoint someone from that list. The media coverage leading up to the appointment, though, left much to be desired. That is in part due due to the process being confidential (supposedly) but many of the stories were simply speculation, rumor and gossip and the media even ignored what was already reported.
Although the list was submitted in November, interest picked up — and started to go a bit awry — when Circuit Judge Mark Barnett withdrew his name from consideration. The press immediately tabbed Attorney General Larry Long the front runner. While I’ve never talked with Long, I’m told he did not apply. If so, his name could not have been on the list. Evidently, no one in the press thought to ask Long if he had applied before making him the front runner.
The closest official word about the list came in a February 8 front page article in the local daily about the lack of Native Americans in state judicial positions. Among other things, it reported that a Native American leader story, “said he received a letter back from the governor saying [Ron] Volesky’s name had not been forwarded by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is required by law to vet potential judicial candidates, and ‘therefore I cannot appoint him.’” I have no firsthand knowledge of whether Ron applied or if his name was on the list. But the specific quote attributed to the governor seemed rather definite.
A week ago, KSFY-TV led its evening news with a story by an individual identified on its website as “director of web development.” After announcing the “make-up of South Dakota’s Supreme Court is on the verge of changing tonight,” it said KSFY had obtained the list of the nine “finalists”.. Two strikes there. First, the “news” there was going to be a new Supreme Court justice and that Rounds had a list from JQC was about at least two months old. Second, the governor’s office said yesterday 11 names were submitted, not nine. Strike three came from KSFY evidently not reading the local daily. Despite the statement reported above, it identified Volesky as one of the finalists.
But even the local daily apparently doesn’t read the local daily. Three days after the KSFY story, the paper repeated the same nine names. It not only included Voelsky, it said “Rounds does deserve credit here for recognizing him.” Isn’t it a bit odd to give Gov. Rounds credit for doing something the paper had already reported he could not do? At least all the speculation ended yesterday with Judge Severson’s appointment.
Yes, the confidentiality of the process makes it difficult for the press but there are good reasons for it. I wasn’t the only one on the list who received an e-mail from a client who saw the KSFY story. Although it was congratulatory, you still wonder if it might cause them to start looking for someone else to handle their legal services. While not the best analogy, especially since my law partners were supportive, do you want your employer to know you’ve applied for a different job? The goal is to encourage qualified applicants, not create reasons not to apply. As I told Pat Powers when he asked me a month ago to confirm the rumor I was on the list, “I am still naive and corny enough to think the position and process are too important for all the speculation.”
Finally, some ask why a registered Democrat with a cynic’s view of politics would ask a Republican governor he’s publicly disagreed with on his blog for an appointment to the state’s highest court. That’s easy. I’ve know Gov. Rounds since college and while that didn’t give me any edge (after all, even I shudder at some of my college antics), I knew qualifications would be foremost to him. I also firmly believe I have the skills to be a
damn good great Supreme Court justice. Finally, even if it was a long shot, I knew if I didn’t apply, I would forever ask, “What if?”
That would have been a miserable way to spend the rest of my life.
Dare to be naive.
R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics