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Noem appoints new lawmakers after ruling by South Dakota Supreme Court

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(The Center Square) – South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem appointed two people to fill vacant legislative seats shortly after the state’s highest court ruled on whether legislators’ ties with state or county contracts are a conflict of interest.

The governor appointed Mike Walsh, a veteran who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, to serve as the senator for District 35 on Monday. The seat was vacated by Jessica Castleberry after she received nearly $500,000 in COVID-relief funds for her preschool business.

Castleberry was ordered to pay the money back after an investigation by the attorney general’s office.

Noem gave Kristin Conzet the nod on Saturday to serve as the representative for District 32. The seat was previously held by Becky Drury, who was appointed to the Senate to fill a vacancy made when Jess Olson resigned.

Before making the appointments, Noem asked the South Dakota Supreme Court about lawmakers who have interests in state or county contracts. The court ruled the state constitution did not issue a categorical bar on all state-funded contracts.

“Instead, it prohibits a legislator, or former legislator within one year following the expiration of the legislator’s term, from being interested, directly or indirectly, in contracts that are authorized by laws passed during the legislator’s term,” the ruling said. “The purpose and effect of general appropriation legislation is restricted to simply allocating money to fund state government; it does not, itself, authorize specific contracts relating to ordinary or current expenses.”

Walsh and Conzet started their terms immediately, according to Noem.

Noem requested the South Dakota Supreme Court ruling after it was discovered that Castleberry had received COVID-19 funds while serving in the Senate. The brief outlined several situations.

“Some Legislators question whether a citizen legislature can even continue to function if ‘indirect’ interest has no end,” according to the brief, from Noem’s chief counsel Katie Hruska. “Some have posited that Article III, § 12 prohibits a Legislator from owning stock in Microsoft when the state purchases Microsoft products or prohibits a Legislator-owned gas station from allowing purchases by state employees, unbeknownst to that Legislator.”

The confusion went beyond Noem’s appointment of new lawmakers, according to the brief.

“The lack of clear guidance for our state employees is troublesome for their duty to expend funds in accordance with the interested contract clause. Uncertainty is having an impact on all three branches of our state government,” the brief said.

Noem asked for the guidance in October.

“The court acted swiftly to provide clarity for both the executive and legislative branches, and we are grateful for their work,” Noem said.

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