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     Style: “A distinctive manner of expression, as in writing or speech.” – Merriam Webster Dictionary

Ain’t language grand?

Two little words, “style” and “form,” caused a major breach between lawmakers and      Gov. Noem recently and even divided legislators themselves.

How could this be?

It started with Noem’s veto of Senate Bill 176, which made funding available in 2020 for pheasant habitat.

She wanted funding to begin in June of this year so she vetoed the bill using the “style and form” explanation, which simply means that the language needed to be corrected for typographical errors or ambiguity.

Instead, she asked that the timeline be changed from 2020 to June 28, 2019.

Some lawmakers thought this went well beyond “style and form” as authorized by the state constitution and voted against Noem. Others didn’t like it but voted for it anyway because they wanted earlier funding for habitat.  Still other lawmakers took a broad view of the style and form definition in the constitution and supported Noem, who ultimately prevailed.

It’s reminiscent of a case 20 years ago when Morrell’s, the meatpacker in Sioux Falls, challenged a law that limited its ability to slaughter livestock. The law included a prepositional phrase, “in this state,” and Morrell’s contended that the phrase incorrectly pertained to the slaughter of all livestock, not just livestock purchased in South Dakota.  Turns out, the phrase was positioned wrongly in the sentence, changing its meaning to a much broader one than the sponsor intended. Morrell’s won the case.

The debate over “style” and “form” won’t be resolved soon because the words are not defined in the constitution. Second, there is no case law on the topic. And third, no attorney general’s opinion has ever been issued, though the “style and form” debate has occurred before.

Here is Article 4, Section 4, Paragraph 4 from the state constitution:

“Bills with errors in style or form may be returned to the Legislature by the Governor with specific recommendations for change. Bills returned shall be treated in the same manner as vetoed bills except that specific recommendations for change as to style or form may be approved by a vote of all members of each house. If the Governor certifies that the bill conforms with the Governor’s specific recommendations, the bill shall become law. If the Governor fails to certify the bill, it shall be returned to the Legislature as a vetoed bill.’’

To date, the final arbiter of the meaning of those words is the state Legislature. And it has spoken . . . for now anyway.

April 10, 2019