Term Limits and Dick Kneip

When South Dakota became a state in 1889, the state constitution included no term limits on the Governor or on any other elected officials. The Governor, along with other constitutional officers, was elected to a two-year term.

Despite the lack of a two-term limit, however, no governor during that era ever served more than two consecutive terms. Only two tried: Democrat Tom Berry, who was elected in 1932 and 1934 but lost the general election in 1936; and Republican M. Q. Sharpe, who was elected in 1942 and 1944 but lost the Republican nomination in 1946. In both of those elections, the “third term” was a significant issue.

The situation was much like that of the President of the United States – despite the lack of a constitutional term limit, no president successfully overcame George Washington’s precedent of a two-term limit during the nation’s first 150 years.

That changed in 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to a third term as President. FDR was subsequently elected to a fourth term in 1944 but died in April 1945. After that, the two-term limit became a national political issue. In 1947, Congress proposed the 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to two terms; the amendment was ratified in 1951.

South Dakota Republicans, motivated by the national issue, also imposed a two-term limit for Governors of South Dakota, passing a statute that read as follows: “No person shall be nominated under the provisions of this chapter for election to the office of Governor for a third successive term.” Although this was not a constitutional amendment, the statute regulating ballot access functioned as a two-term limit for the next two decades and its validity was never challenged.

Then, in the early 1970s, a “constitutional revision commission” proposed a complete rewrite of the state constitution’s executive article. That was approved by the voters in 1972. The new article changed the term from two-years to four-years, beginning in 1974, and it also placed the two-consecutive-term limit into the constitution, reading as follows: “no person shall be elected to more than two consecutive terms as Governor or as lieutenant governor.” (Another change approved in that amendment was for the Governor and Lt. Governor to run as a ticket; prior to 1974 they ran separately).

That created an ambiguous situation for Governor Richard F. Kneip, a Democrat who had been elected in 1970 and was reelected in 1972. It was widely assumed that Governor Kneip was term-limited and that he would not run again in 1974. In fact, Lt. Governor Bill Dougherty, a fellow Democrat, was already planning to run to succeed him and other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harvey Wollman, were considering candidacies as well.

Gov. Richard F. Kneip

Kneip, though, took the position that the constitutional change made him eligible to run for a four-year term in 1974. He attempted to file for reelection, but was denied by Secretary of State Lorna Herseth (a fellow Democrat and former First Lady). Secretary Herseth believed that the statutory two-term limit, which was still on the books, prohibited Kneip from filing for a third consecutive term.

Kneip challenged Herseth’s decision and, in Kneip v. Herseth, the State Supreme Court ruled in Kneip’s favor. The ruling was 4-1 on the substantive issue as to whether Kneip could run again. (Two justices, who had been appointed by Kneip, recused themselves and two circuit judges sat in on the case. The four ruling for Kneip included two justices and the two circuit judges; the third justice dissented.)

The rationale of the Court’s majority ruling is often misunderstood. Many from that time believe that the Court held that Kneip’s two two-year terms should be considered single four-year term, entitling him to run for a four-year term in 1974, and then to be term-limited in 1978. 

In fact, the Court’s ruling was that the constitutional change should not be viewed as being retrospective, but only prospective. The effect of this was that the amendment had effectively “reset” Kneip’s term limit. Having served two two-year terms, he was immediately eligible to serve two more four-year terms. The ruling allowed Kneip to run for a four-year term in 1974, and it would have also allowed him to run once more in 1978. Had he done so successfully, he would have served twelve consecutive years as governor.

In fact, Kneip did run for reelection and win in 1974. Lt. Governor Dougherty, who felt that Kneip had broken a commitment by running again in 1974, challenged him in the Democratic primary, but Kneip won handily and also prevailed in the fall. In the first election in which the Governor and Lt. Governor ran as a ticket, Kneip’s new running mate was Harvey Wollman, the Senate Majority Leader who had declined to run for Governor in deference to Kneip.

Kneip would have been eligible to run once more in 1978, but in 1977 he announced that he would not run for Governor again, and also that he would not seek a U.S. Senate seat that was being vacated by incumbent U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk. The Democratic strength on the 1970s was on the ebb, and Kneip would have faced formidable challenges from either of his likely Republican opponents, Attorney General Bill Janklow for Governor and Congressman Larry Pressler for U.S. House. (Both Janklow and Pressler were in fact elected easily in 1978.)

Rather, Governor Kneip expressed an interest to President Jimmy Carter about a federal appointment, and in early 1978, President Carter nominated Kneip to by U.S. Ambassador to Singapore. Kneip accepted the appointment and resigned in July 1978. Lt. Governor Harvey Wollman, who had by that point lost the 1978 Democratic primary to State Senator Roger McKellips, succeeded to the Governor’s Office and served for the final five months of Kneip’s term.

At the time that Kneip left office, his tenure of 7 years and 7 months was the longest of any South Dakota governor. That was exceeded by the governor elected in 1978, Bill Janklow, who served 8 years from 1979-87, left for 8 years, and then served another 8 years from 1995-2003. Janklow’s 16 years remains the longest tenure of gubernatorial service. Two subsequent governors, Mike Rounds (2003-11) and Dennis Daugaard (2011-19), also served for 8 years and eclipsed Kneip’s record.

Thanks to Dr. Eric Ostermeier of the Smart Politics blog and the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Dr. Ostermeier’s question to me this morning led me to write this as an email response to him, and I polished it up into a blog post.