Bethel Alumnus to Become Chief Justice of S.D. Supreme Court

As he readies to take over as the administrative head of South Dakota’s court system, Steven Jensen ’85 looks back at how his time at Bethel prepared him as he grew spiritually, was challenged academically, and made lifelong friends.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

August 18, 2020 | 10 a.m.

Steven Jensen ’85

South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Steven Jensen ’85 poses with his family during his investiture as a Supreme Court justice. With Jensen, center, are his sons, Andrew and Ryan; his wife, Sue; and his daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Blake.

During his sophomore year at Bethel, a political science professor asked Steven Jensen ’85 to stay behind for a few minutes after class. “I’m thinking, ‘What’d I do now? I’m in big trouble,’” Jensen remembers with a chuckle. But his professor told him, “I think you have a lot of potential,” and suggested he apply to be a teaching assistant. The brief conversation turned out to be a watershed moment for Jensen. “I don’t know that I ever thought of myself in that way before. I still look back on that and think that was a significant moment in terms of my confidence,” he says.

The experience proved to be one of many pivotal moments for Jensen on his way to serving as an associate justice on the South Dakota Supreme Court. In January 2021, he will take over as chief justice, the administrative head of the South Dakota court system, and oversee its more than 500 employees and a $58 million budget. But growing up on a farm near Wakonda, South Dakota, Jensen never aspired to join the state’s highest court.

As a child, Jensen thought he may one day farm like his dad; however, his father urged him to attend college first—because he hadn’t attended college and wished he had. While something in the back of Jensen’s mind said it would be cool to be a lawyer, he admits with laugh that the only lawyers he knew were televised, like Perry Mason. Jensen first learned about Bethel from an older cousin who had attended. Then his older sister also attended Bethel, and Jensen decided to attend after visiting her. At Bethel, Jensen strove to deepen his faith and make it his own, and he formed lifelong friends—several of whom would later attend Jensen’s investiture when he became an associate justice. While majoring in political science, he learned from great professors in the department who challenged him and cared for him in and out of the classroom. “I probably didn’t have very good study skills in high school, and they really taught to me think critically and improve my writing significantly,” he says. Jensen laughs as he remembers a few professors who weren’t initially kind to his writing, but he grew through frequent reading and writing.

"From the standpoint of my Bethel experience, I had a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it. But just the combination of growing academically and growing spiritually—I think that really set me up for life."

— South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Steven Jensen ’85
The summer after his junior year, Jensen interned for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office. Grassley’s legislative director mentored Jensen and told him about the positive things lawyers can accomplish. Soon after, Jensen attended the University of South Dakota Law School. He then clerked for the South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Richard Sabers for a year before working in private practice for 14 years, primarily in civil trials. He was appointed as a circuit judge in 2003, serving 14 years as a trial court judge before being appointed to the South Dakota Supreme Court as an associate justice in 2017.

Jensen admits serving as a judge requires a different perspective than being a lawyer. While lawyers advocate for their clients, a judge remains impartial and doesn’t reach a conclusion until he or she has heard everything in a case. That fits Jensen’s personality. His wife, Sue, once told him that sometimes his willingness to look at all sides and consider all positions drove her crazy—but she admitted it showed why he was such a good judge.

Jensen calls serving as a Supreme Court justice a somewhat cloistered lifestyle as he and his fellow justices consider hundreds of cases each year. Jensen describes the Court as an important and fair forum for resolving many conflicts, and the justices see a wide range of cases since South Dakota doesn’t have an intermediate appellate court. Some of the most significant involve families and children, Jensen says, and these cases are often difficult, heartbreaking, and feature challenging situations, but they are also an opportunity to hopefully make a difference. Death penalty cases are also extremely challenging, as the court makes life and death decisions for individuals. “When the justices are in the room and we’re talking about those cases, there’s a weight that maybe I don’t sense or feel in other cases,” he says.
Steven Jensen ’85

South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Steven Jensen ’85 says he made lifelong friends at Bethel, and several of them attended his investiture to become a Supreme Court justice. Pictured, from left, are: John Nelson ’85, Jeff Koehn ’85, Jensen, Jeff McCauley ’85, Jeff Velasco ’84, and Al Mehlhorn ’85, who died last year.

Jensen enjoys collaborating with his fellow justices, which doesn’t happen as a trial court judge. “As an appellate judge, you have other members on the court, and they’re sometimes saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure you’re right on this. Have you thought about this?’” he says. “So there’s a lot of back and forth and collaboration, but that also makes our opinions better and makes the law better in terms of people, lawyers, and courts being able to apply those opinions in future cases.” Even after more than 30 years in law, Jensen continues to learn each day. And to him, that’s a healthy thing. “You continually learn. You continually grow. Hopefully you continue to develop even as a writer as you think about the various cases that come in front of us—some very interesting cases, some very difficult, heartbreaking cases,” he says.

Jensen will take on new responsibilities as he becomes chief justice. As the administrative head of the state court system, he’ll work closely with the governor and legislature on judicial initiatives and budgeting. He’ll also oversee a wide range of issues, from rules and policies to the oversight of all lawyers in the state. COVID-19 has brought new challenges, and Jensen says court officials are learning by trial and error like most people. Since March, most hearings have been by phone or video conferencing system. While some cases have been pushed back, it’s important for court proceedings to continue, especially when people are in jail awaiting trial. But it’s also difficult to bring jurors together to hear a case while remaining safe. “It’s been a difficult thing, just like it’s been for everybody else trying to figure that out and get our cases resolved,” he says.

Jensen’s faith remains an important part of his life, and he strives for his interactions, conversations, and work to display salt and light. One verse stands out to Jensen: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV). In fact, Jensen recited the verse at his investiture when he became an associate justice. “I don’t care what your job is in life. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God—I don’t know that we can probably have much of a better mission in life,” he says.

Jensen and Sue celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary earlier this year. They have three children: Rachel, 26; Ryan, 23; and Andrew, 19. In their free time, the couple stays active by biking, hiking, and going to the gym, and they also enjoy board games and reading. But they’re enjoying a new hobby these days—adapting to life as grandparents after Rachel and her husband, Blake, welcomed twin girls earlier this year. “We’re having a lot of fun with our first two grandchildren,” Jensen says. “Our grandbabies have become new hobbies for us.”

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