By Katie Smith
Months after a sitting South Dakota Supreme Court justice died unexpectedly, his family, friends and colleagues are remembering a man whose life was marked by optimism and success in spite of struggle.
Supreme Court Justice Steven Zinter died Oct. 30 after suffering complications related to pelvic bone surgery. He was 68 years old and the first sitting justice to die in office since 1976.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Zinter first moved to Sioux City, Iowa, before earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of South Dakota. There he met his wife, Sandy, whom he married in 1974.
Zinter’s tenure at the state supreme court began in 2002, well into a law career that began when he received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of South Dakota in 1975.
Chief Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson met Zinter on their first day of classes at the USD School of Law in 1972. Decades later, their offices at the Supreme Court sat next door to each other. Gilbertson said Zinter had “unfailing optimism” in everything he did, despite being paralyzed in a 1982 diving accident.
“Life was not easy for him … but you always saw him upbeat, positive,” Gilbertson said. One of Zinter’s daughters, Sarah Detwiller, agreed that her father never let his paralysis slow him down.
“Dad loved life and was an eternal optimist,” Detwiller said. “He didn’t focus on what he couldn’t do and instead focused on what he could do. Challenges were not stop signs: They were obstacles to find a way over, around or through.” Detwiller credited her father with inspiring her decision to enter into law as a career.
“He once told me he loved the law because it gave him the chance to constantly learn new things, to solve problems and to help people,” she said. “I have that same love of learning and problem solving and also a desire to help people.”
After graduating from the USD School of Law, Zinter began his law career as assistant attorney general in Pierre. He left that position in 1978 to go into private practice, during which time he also served as the Hughes County state’s attorney from 1980 until 1986.
Upon leaving the state’s attorney’s office, Zinter served as a circuit judge for 10 years before being named presiding judge over the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Pierre, a position he held until he was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Commitment at Home and on the Bench
Those who knew Zinter say one of his premier traits was his dogged desire to give the best opinion possible. Just one of the more notable cases Zinter had issued an opinion on in recent years was 2018’s McDowell v. Sapienza, in which a Sioux Falls couple sued their neighbors over the size of their newly-built home.
“This is a difficult case,” Zinter wrote in his McDowell v. Sapienza opinion. “Both parties presented compelling cases, and substantial harm will befall whichever party does not prevail.”
When asked which case was perhaps Zinter’s most important, Gilbertson could not give an exact answer.
“Every case he ever tried was the most important,” Gilbertson said. “He didn’t quit until he was completely satisfied.”
USD School of Law Dean Thomas Geu, who met Zinter while in law school and considered him a friend for more than 25 years, said he had an unparalleled passion for justice and worked tirelessly to hone his craft.
“He authored hundreds of opinions for the court, touching virtually every area of law,” Geu said. “Those opinions, always carefully and technically drafted, will be important and sometimes animating influences on the law for the next four decades and maybe longer.”
Although Detwiller said her father never discussed cases at home, she lauded his integrity in both the private and public spheres.
“For Dad, it wasn’t enough to just do the job: He needed to do the job well,” she said. “He taught us that it isn’t enough to just show up. We needed to show up and work hard … This mattered with little and big things – from loading the dishwasher to writing a Supreme Court brief.”
Zinter is also remembered as being someone with many friends. Gilbertson joked that when going out to restaurants with Zinter, it often took him 30 minutes to get from the front door to the table because he knew so many people.
“I never knew anybody who had a bad thing to say about him,” Gilbertson said.
Detwiller said that her father always made it a point to make personal connections in both his personal and professional life.
“People were important to Dad,” she said. “He always made time to talk to people, to ask about their lives.”
Geu spoke of the respect Zinter brought to the USD School of Law simply by virtue of being a graduate of it.
“He was a marvelous listener, problem-solver and advisor,” Geu said. “I admired and benefited from his wisdom both professionally and personally. I miss him.”
Despite Zinter’s being a centerpiece of the South Dakota law community, Geu said he never tried to draw unnecessary attention to himself.
“Justice Zinter was never afraid to reach unpopular results where he believed the law demanded them. Many times, however, the mark of an outstanding jurist is to remain outside media and public attention by humbly, quietly and earnestly applying law to facts in a work-like manner without igniting great public fanfare,” he said. “Justice Zinter approached his work quietly, earnestly and without personal aggrandizement.”
This tenacity for excellence extended to Zinter’s private life as well. Detwiller said her father attended every dance recital, every tennis match, every soccer game and always put his family first. Though a giant among South Dakota judges, to Detwiller, Justice Zinter was simply “dad.”
“He taught us how to drive a boat, waterski, wakeboard. It was his life goal to drive the boat so wildly that my sister and I were thrown from the tube,” she said, remembering her father’s love for aviation and the outdoors. “I believe there were a few summers my parents even cancelled the cable so we had no choice but to get outside and live life.”
"He once told me he loved the law because it gave him the chance to constantly learn new things, to solve problems and to help people." - Sarah Detwiller, one of Justice Zinter's daughters
When asked what about her father she would most like people to remember, Detwiller remembered a handwritten note from a friend in a biography given to Zinter about famed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. The note quoted the author of the biography and included the friend’s thoughts on how the author’s words applied to Zinter:
“‘If the significance of his life lay wholly in his legal achievements, there would be no place for a biography written by a layman. If its significance lay wholly in his written words, there would be no place for a biography at all. But [Justice Zinter’s] greatness lays most of all in his manner of meeting life. He had a genius for living, a genius for finding himself wholly, using himself wholly. He loved life and believed in it.’”
Detwiller said she could not think of a better way to describe her father.
“He was meticulous, a man of detail, and a man with great work ethic,” she said. “Dad loved life, he lived life, no matter the challenge.”