Chief Justice VandeWalle delivers State of the Judiciary Address

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News Article

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School of Law


A lack of resources in North Dakota’s courts has led to a system of “conveyor-belt justice” where hearings are often run by script and concluded in less than five minutes, Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said Wednesday as he called on lawmakers to approve more judges and court staff.

VandeWalle, delivering his State of the Judiciary Address to a joint session of the Legislature, said the court caseload has increased dramatically in the past decade, particularly in oil-impacted counties.

The judicial branch is asking the Legislature to fund four additional judges and 15 new court staff to meet the growing needs in Burleigh, Morton, Stark, McKenzie, Ward and Williams counties, VandeWalle said. The state currently has 47 district judgeships.

The lack of judges and court staff affects entire communities, he said.

“Those charged with crimes sit in jail longer while they wait for their day in court and a judgment of guilt or innocence,” he said. “This is disruptive to their own lives and those of their families; it is hard on the alleged victims and the witnesses who wait to testify, and it costs the counties thousands of dollars in incarceration costs.”

And criminal cases aren’t the only ones affected, VandeWalle said. An inadequate number of judges and staff results in waits for children in foster care and adults involved in divorces and custody issues, among others, he said.

The judicial branch is requesting just over $6 million in 2015-17 for 28 additional full-time equivalent positions, including $434,128 for each new judge for the two-year budget cycle. Nine of the positions are county positions that are being converted to state positions, said Don Wolf, finance director for the state court system.

Two of the new judgeships would be located in the South Central Judicial District, which includes Burleigh and Morton counties, home to the most active courts in the state, VandeWalle said. The Northwest and Southwest districts would each receive one additional judgeship.

Lawmakers approved VandeWalle’s request for three new judges last session, two for the Northwest Judicial District and one for the East Central Judicial District.

State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said the caseload is shifting from central and eastern counties to western counties. The Northwest and Southwest judicial districts, which encompass many of the state’s oil-producing counties, saw case filings increase by about 5.2 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively, from 2012 to 2013, according to the court system’s annual report.

Statewide, the number of new cases filed in district courts actually decreased by 1.25 percent in 2013, from 185,982 to 183,648, but was still up more than 18 percent over 2003. Holewa said caseload figures for 2014 aren’t available yet, but she expects the total to be similar to 2013.

In his roughly 15-minute address, VandeWalle also asked lawmakers to support a $40 million project included in the governor’s budget to remodel and expand the Liberty Memorial Building on the Capitol grounds into a permanent home for the Supreme Court and its administrative functions. The high court was the original tenant of the building when it was built in 1924 and remained there until 1934, when the court moved to the Capitol, where it has since run out of space.

VandeWalle said the need for more court resources won’t diminish if the state’s thriving economy slows down.

“Experience has shown there is even greater demand on the courts when businesses fail, crime increases and the stresses on families result in more family law cases,” he said.