ELK POINT, S.D. | You'd expect someone who's soon to be sitting on his state's supreme court to tell you that he had been fascinated by the law from a young age, had always wanted to be a lawyer and maybe, someday, a judge.
That's not the case with Steven Jensen, who will be sworn in as a South Dakota Supreme Court justice on Nov. 3 after serving 14 years as a circuit court judge in southeast South Dakota's 1st Circuit.
A farm kid from tiny Wakonda (estimated 2016 population: 316) in Clay County, Jensen had no lawyers in his family. Growing up, he didn't know anyone who was a lawyer.
Going into his junior year at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jensen wasn't quite sure what he would do after completing his bachelor's degree in political science. Teaching? Politics? Maybe return to the family farm?
"I don't know that I had any definitive plans," Jensen said.
The summer of 1984, prior to his junior year, added some definition to his future. Taking part in an internship program through Bethel, Jensen spent that summer in Washington, D.C., working in Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's office.
He spent a lot of time with Charlie Jarvis, a lawyer who was Grassley's legislative director at the time. Jensen would listen as Jarvis spoke about the importance of the law and the good things it can do in society. The thought of going to law school had crossed Jensen's mind before. Those conversations with Jarvis made Jensen think about it even more.
"He kind of mentored me a little bit that summer, talked to me about the law," Jensen said. "He probably planted the seed with me of becoming a lawyer."
Once planted, that seed grew quickly.
Jensen would graduate from the University of South Dakota School of Law in 1988. He clerked at the South Dakota Supreme Court for a year, then practiced with the Crary Huff law firm in Sioux City and Dakota Dunes for 14 years, spending much of his time in litigation. With all that time spent in court, Jensen began to think about what it would be like to decide cases rather than argue one side of them.
"I was drawn to that notion of deciding cases and being that neutral decision-maker. As a lawyer, that's really not your job," he said.
In 2003, Jensen applied for a judicial opening in the 1st Circuit. Then-Gov. Mike Rounds appointed him to the bench, and Jensen was re-elected in 2006 and 2014. He was appointed the circuit's presiding judge in 2011.
Jensen appreciated the role of being that decision-maker, hearing all kinds of cases.
"You have the chance to make a difference in people's lives and actually get to see that," he said. "As a trial judge, you're right in the thick of things."
You're also really busy, often lacking the luxury of spending time doing extra legal research. Having that time to really research a case is what attracted Jensen to the Supreme Court.
"I've always enjoyed the research, writing and analytical process of a judge," he said.
Sitting on the Supreme Court, Jensen knew, would allow him to spend more time on those judicial aspects. He was one of six people considered for the current vacancy, and Gov. Dennis Daugaard called Jensen to inform him he'd been chosen on Sept. 17.
"It's the opportunity to really dig into a substantive case and substantive issue and hopefully provide a clear direction on cases and issues for the future," Jensen said of his future as a Supreme Court justice. "It's a tremendous opportunity, but it also feels like a tremendous responsibility."
Jensen, 54, will establish an office at the USD Law School in Vermillion. With eight judicial sessions at the Supreme Court in Pierre each year, Jensen will be able to maintain his residence in Dakota Dunes. As his investiture ceremony approaches, Jensen said he's had time to reflect on his career, how he wasn't sure for a long time what kind of career to pursue.
"Obviously, we always think back to our roots -- a kid from a small town who grew up on a farm who didn't know any lawyers," Jensen said. "You certainly appreciate the opportunity."