Return to Home

Unit 8


South Dakota Government

Lesson 3
State Government

     State government is important in our everyday lives. It helps to keep schools, hospitals, roads, and prisons running. It sells fishing and hunting licenses. It tests drivers to see that they know the rules of the road. It makes sure that doctors have the right education. State government even decides how many days you will go to school each year.

Hunting and Fishing Licenses
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

State Capitol

     South Dakota government is like the national government. It has three branches. One is called the legislative branch. The others are the executive branch and the judicial branch. Each branch has powers to check the others. State legislators make up the legislative branch. Together, they make state laws. They decide how to spend state money. They have the power to override a governor’s veto. They can impeach a governor.


     South Dakota voters elect the legislators. Voters pick people from their part of the state. Citizens have to let legislators know their wishes.   Legislators are loyal to the people who elected them. They try to make laws that will be good for those people. Each legislator serves a term of two years. 

     The South Dakota Legislature is bicameral. That means that it has two groups with equal power. One group is called the senate. The other is the house of representatives. Most South Dakota laws start as bills in the house or senate. A member of the house or senate brings a bill to the legislature. The legislature votes to make it a law or reject it.

     The citizens of South Dakota can make or reject laws, too. They do this by initiative and referendum. People who have an idea for a new law start by writing it down. Then they ask people to sign it. If enough people sign, voters must vote on the law in an election. This is called an initiative. A referendum is used when people do not like a law passed by the legislature. If enough people question the law, it is brought to the voters. This is called a referendum. In this way, the people can check the power of the legislature.

     The leader of the executive branch is the governor. The governor carries out state laws. He or she makes sure that the rules of the state constitution are followed. South Dakota voters elect governors for terms of four years. The same person may not serve more than two terms in a row. Governors have many powers. They can pardon a criminal. They talk to the national government and to other states. They can call the legislature together. The governor can also suggest laws and veto bills.

Capitol Interior
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


     The governor runs the executive branch. Many people help him or her do the work of the state. Some of these people are elected. For example, the state treasurer is elected. He or she watches over the state’s money. The governor appoints other helpers. These people make up the cabinet. Cabinet members run the departments of government. One is the Department of Transportation. It builds state roads.

     The judicial branch is the court system. The courts settle arguments about law. They set punishments for those who break the law. South Dakota’s court system has two basic levels. One is the supreme court. The other is the circuit courts.

State Supreme Court, 1952
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     The Supreme Court of South Dakota is the highest court in the state. The governor appoints five  justices, or judges. One is a chief justice, or head judge. Four are associate justices. The supreme court has the power to rule on acts of the legislature. It also has the power to say that actions of the governor are unconstitutional. Most cases in front of the supreme court are appeals. They come from the circuit, or district, courts.


     Circuit courts are trial courts. They hear cases dealing with people’s rights and with crimes. The state is divided into regions. These are called circuits. Voters in each region elect circuit judges. Judges serve a term of eight years. Each circuit also has other judges who handle small cases. These judges are called magistrates.

appeals (n.), cases from a lower court asking a higher court to review

appoints (v.), names to a position; gives a job to

associate (adj.), having equal powers

bill (n.), a form or draft of a law

cabinet (n.), a group who gives advice

departments (n.), parts of the whole

override (v.), to ride or go over

pardon (v.), to free from punishment