Judge Sonja Clapp Retires from Bench with Plans to Stay Active on Issues

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

School of Law


The second Grand Forks District Court judge to retire in recent years, Sonja Clapp, UND Law School Class of '87, recently announced she will step down from the bench in December after almost a decade as a district judge.

"If you took a poll at the bar, she would probably be the favorite judge in Grand Forks," said District Judge Lawrence Jahnke, who has known Clapp since she began as a county prosecutor in the late 1980s.

Clapp was elected to the district judge seat in the Northeast Central District — which covers Grand Forks and Nelson counties — in 2004. At the time she was sworn in, she was one of eight female district court judges in the state and one of three in the district.

Jahnke said Clapp is a "very gracious" and "very compassionate" judge, who was invested in the adult Drug Court Program, which started in Grand Forks in 2008.

"That's been her pet project," said Jahnke.

Drug Court is a treatment program for people suffering from substance abuse problems and has graduated 48 participants in Grand Forks since its conception.

"That has been rewarding for me as well as the participants," Clapp said.

Prior to serving as a district judge, Clapp worked as an assistant state's attorney in Grand Forks for 16 years. Before that, she was employed with social services in Grand Forks and Ramsey counties for 11 years.

"I figure after 39 years, it's time to give someone else an opportunity," she said, referring to her nearly 40 years in public service in North Dakota.

Changes on the bench

Grand Forks Judge Joel Medd retired last September after 34 years on the bench, the longest service by any district judge in the state. Clapp's retirement is a signal of more change to come at the Grand Forks County Courthouse.

In recent years, a few Grand Forks judges have struggled with health issues. Early last year, Medd was recovering from open-heart surgery, during which time retired Judge H. Patrick Weir, of Medora, N.D., filled in. Judge Karen Braaten has been in a battle with cancer for more than five years.

Now Medd occasionally fills in as a surrogate — or substitute — judge. Jahnke said that judges from Cavalier, Rugby and Devils Lake will likely assist in picking up some of the workload after Clapp steps down from the bench.

Clapp said she has no idea who her successor may be. A committee will accept applications once the state Supreme Court decides whether to keep the position, which Clapp said she is confident it will. The governor will then appoint a judge from a list of applicants picked by the committee.

When asked what advice she would offer a fledgling judge, Clapp said she would advise her to hear a case out, be patient with litigants and understand that no case is trivial.

"We hear anything from traffic cases, small claims to felony murder," said Clapp. "I think it's important to remember that there is no unimportant case because to that person in your courtroom, looking to you, that is the most important case that day ... and I think you have to give those litigants as much attention as you would to a case of more serious consequences where someone may be facing a life sentence."

Clapp said she wants to continue to serve residents by participating on committees dealing with chemical dependency, mental health and children's welfare. She is also considering becoming a surrogate judge.

Then there's that pile of untouched books.

"I have a list of books I haven't read. I have too much reading material here," she said, motioning to her office desk.