AuthorFulton, Neil

Justice Steven L. Zinter was a vital part of South Dakota's legal landscape for decades. As a private practitioner, circuit court judge, supreme court justice, and in other official capacities, he forged a powerful legacy in South Dakota. Over the course of his time he worked on cases large and small in many areas of law. He was recognized as a brilliant legal mind, precise writer, and careful thinker. It is a challenge to capture the breadth and depth of such a career. This article takes a look at his personal formation, his legal work in several settings, and how his personal and professional traits came together to leave a unique and enduring legacy in the law.

Few figures have cast as large a shadow across South Dakota's legal landscape as Steven Lee Zinter. It is tempting to characterize that shadow as "imposing," but that would be wrong. As striking as his intellect and achievements were, anyone who knew Steve Zinter would describe him as accessible, caring, witty, curious, playful, or any host of adjectives not-so-fraught-with intimidation as "imposing." As Lori Wilbur, one of his great friends and fellow Justice on the South Dakota Supreme Court described him, "It is hard to explain the combination of his legal knowledge, drive for perfection, and general affability because the combination of those characteristics is so rare." (1) Indeed, his unique combination of personality and skill generated an astounding legacy within the South Dakota legal community. This article is a portrait of that legacy.

An assessment of Steve Zinter's legal legacy must start with some understanding of him as a person. To assess the legacy of any public figure requires context, but particularly so with a jurist so powerfully shaped by personal experience.


    Steve Zinter was born on September 18, 1950, in Minneapolis and lived in Iowa for much of his youth. (2) Nonetheless, he described himself as a South Dakotan to his core. (3) Much of his father's family farmed in and around rural Brown County and across the border into south central North Dakota; much of his mother's family around Lake Preston. (4) He described a childhood with parents who were the "opposite of helicopter parents," simply guiding the Zinter children in certain fundamentals and allowing them to find their own paths in life. (5)

    Zinter was a proud recipient of both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Dakota. (6) Ever practical and sociable, he chose USD because it was cheaper than staying in Iowa for college and because he had a number of friends planning to go there. (7) He spoke glowingly of his time in Vermillion, saying "what a wonderful experience it was to go to USD those seven years." (8) Doubtless the most important part of his time at USD was meeting his wife, Sandy (Aaen) Zinter; despite both attending the business school they were introduced at the Coyote Student Center only the year before he began law school. (9)

    Zinter recalls "shaking at the knees" as he entered law school. (10) His classmates included his eventual fellow South Dakota Supreme Court Justices Glen Severson and David Gilbertson. (11) Zinter and Gilbertson became friends on the first day of law school and remained so thereafter, eventually having adjacent chambers at the South Dakota Supreme Court and maturing into a relationship both described as more like brothers than mere friends. (12)

    In his third year of law school, Zinter was introduced by a law school friend to Bill Janklow, then a legal aid lawyer working at Rosebud. (13) After being elected Attorney General, Janklow recruited Zinter to join the South Dakota Attorney General's Office in Pierre, where he worked from 1975 to 1978. (14) Janklow became a lifetime friend and mentor, eventually appointing Zinter to both the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court and the South Dakota Supreme Court. (15) Zinter's time as an assistant attorney general was formative because Janklow "kicked us out of the nest early," sending Zinter and other young lawyers out to try murders and aggravated assaults freshly out of law school. (16)

    When Attorney General Janklow became Governor Janklow, Zinter entered private practice. (17) He joined the Pierre law firm of Schmidt, Schroyer, Colwill, Zinter, & Barnett, P.C. from 1978 and 1986. (18) He also served as Hughes County State's Attorney from 1980 to 1986. (19)

    Steve Zinter became Judge Steven L. Zinter of the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in 1987. (20) He served there for fifteen years, including five as presiding judge of the circuit, before joining the South Dakota Supreme Court in 2002. (21) His natural sociability again on display, Zinter recalled having hesitation about applying for the Supreme Court vacancy because of potential isolation from personal contact. (22) Again prodded by Governor Janklow, he overcame that hesitation and applied; ever sociable and accessible, he found ways to keep alive his vibrant personal connections after joining the Supreme Court. (23)

    During his professional ascendency, Steve Zinter was struck with a shattering personal setback. A swimming pool accident on July 3, 1982 rendered him paralyzed. (24) He spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair. While that fact is separate from any doctrinal aspect of his legacy, it was a daily aspect of his experience. While it unavoidably imposed certain physical barriers on him, any mental barriers would have been self-imposed, and Steve Zinter declined to be so bounded. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Zinter held court in every county within the Sixth Circuit except one which had a courthouse that was physically inaccessible to a wheelchair at the time. (25) Sometimes that required creativity and adaptation, including holding court in county commission meeting rooms. (26) But Steve Zinter, predictably, found a way.

    A focus on the human experience within his work was never far from Justice Zinter's mind. He described "tough cases" as the most challenging aspect of serving on the South Dakota Supreme Court. (27) His examples of "tough cases" were a death penalty case (28) and cases involving children--cases involving real humans were always at the forefront of his mind. (29) He was acutely aware that he sat on the "court of last resort" in South Dakota, and that there was a corresponding call for great caution and care in the work of resolving disputes among South Dakota citizens. (30) Particularly so given that South Dakota, unlike many states, allows appeal of right to its supreme court, presenting the court with the widest variety of cases and thus calling on its justices to be skilled legal generalists. (31)

    In an opinion regarding a long running and hotly contested property zoning dispute issued during his last year on the South Dakota Supreme Court, Justice Zinter wrote an apt description of the challenge of conscientious judging: "This is a difficult case. Both parties presented compelling cases, and substantial harm will befall whichever party does not prevail." (32) While this article seeks to assess Steve Zinter's legacy in a doctrinal fashion, it must be noted at the outset that within that legacy is an unfailing recognition of the law as a human experience which changes the trajectory of the litigants' lives. Rather than choosing between doctrine or experience, his work of judging engaged both. And he sought to engage well. As his daughter Sarah put it:

    For Dad, it wasn't enough to just do the job: He needed to do the job well. He taught us that it isn't enough to just show up. We needed to show up and work hard.... This mattered with the little and big things--from loading the dishwasher to writing a Supreme Court brief. (33) This quest for judicial excellence began with Steve Zinter's service with the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court.


    Steve Zinter's career as a judge began with the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court based out of Pierre, in central South Dakota. (34) Although Judge Zinter took a common path to and through the judiciary, from the outset of his career he was notably different. Judge Zinter had an impeccable reputation as prepared, thoughtful, and fair. (35) A look at some of his significant cases demonstrates how he earned that reputation.


      A first noteworthy aspect of Justice Zinter's time on the circuit bench was the volume of administrative appeals that he handled. He was known for expertise and excellence among administrative law practitioners. (36) Many lawyers would choose to venue administrative appeals in Hughes County before Judge Zinter rather than their home county as a result. (37) His reputation was sterling on these cases, favoring neither side, understanding the issues well, and producing well-considered opinions. (38) Judge Zinter had a recognized command of South Dakota's Administrative Procedures Act. (39) Justice Konenkamp remarked that this experience made him exceptionally well prepared to join the South Dakota Supreme Court because he had real experience conducting appellate review and understood the impact of standards of review on the outcome of cases. (40)

      Judge Zinter's status as the "go to" circuit court judge for administrative appeals resulted in much of South Dakota worker's compensation law coming from his court, with more than forty South Dakota Supreme Court decisions in the area. As an illustrative example, ten "odd lot" doctrine (41) cases arose from Judge Zinter's court. (42) These opinions produced clarity on key concepts in the application of that doctrine. For example, Judge Zinter was the trial judge in a case where the South Dakota Supreme Court held on appeal that employers resisting an award of benefits ultimately have the burden of proof to demonstrate that there are employment opportunities available (and therefore no entitlement to benefits), but only after the worker makes a prima facie case that they meet the...

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