Don Hager, '86 Sworn in as Northeast Central District Judge

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School of Law


Fifteen years after he lost the 2000 election for a Grand Forks judge's seat, a Larimore attorney has donned judge's robes.

"It took him 15 years to get across the finish line, but hey, the tortoise and the hare," said Larry Richards, a Grand Forks attorney, at the Friday ceremony where new Grand Forks Judges Don Hager and Lolita Romanick were officially sworn in Friday. Romanick is a former Grand Forks attorney.

In December, the two were appointed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple to replace retired Judge Sonja Clapp and the late Judge Karen Braaten in the Northeast Central Judicial District, which covers Grand Forks and Nelson counties.

"I walked into a full calendar right away," said Hager from his new chambers on the courthouse's third floor. Hager started his term as a district judge Jan. 1, while Romanick took her place on the bench about a month later.

Hager has already had as many as 50 cases in a single day, he said. In his second month on the job, he was handling cases with serious repercussions, in one case sentencing a man convicted of murder.

New judges receive little training, if any, before jumping into the position, said State Court Administrator Sally Holewa.

"We put them on the bench very quickly with a little bit of opportunity to observe (other judges) ahead of time," she said in an interview.

The advice given to Hager beforehand?

"Jump in with both feet," Hager said.

'Difficult transition'

Part of the reason for the quick transition to the bench is a statewide staffing shortage, with case loads increasing in district courts across the state.

Turnover has beset the Grand Forks County Courthouse in recent months, with several officials alluding Friday to the "difficult transition period" that the courthouse is experiencing, as North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Carol Ronning Kapsner put it Friday.

Four district judges and one judicial referee have left the bench in the last two years, with Judge Debbie Kleven the only veteran judge remaining in Grand Forks.

Before former Judge Joel Medd retired in September 2013, Grand Forks judges had slightly more than 100 years of combined experience on the bench. That number was slashed in the last two years, and now Grand Forks district judges have around 25 years of combined experience.

Medd was followed by Clapp, who announced her retirement in September. Then, in October, Braaten died after a long-fought battle with cancer.

"This courthouse lost a tremendous amount of decency and compassion" with Clapp's retirement and Braaten's death, said Peter Welte, who is now an attorney in private practice after having resigned recently as Grand Forks County state's attorney.

Former judicial referee David Vigeland left in December, and then District Judge Lawrence Jahnke, who had served on the bench for a quarter of a century, went into retirement in mid-March.

The North Dakota Supreme Court still has not decided whether to keep the judge's seat left by Jahnke's retirement within Grand Forks, said Holewa, the state court administrator. In the meantime, that leaves the Grand Forks courthouse one judge short and relying on surrogate — or substitute — judges to pick up the slack.

A statewide issue

But the Grand Forks courthouse is not the only one troubled by high turnover. Currently, about a third of district judges statewide have less than five years' experience on the bench, according to the 2014 state Court System Annual Report.

That phenomenon has its positives and its negatives, Holewa said.

"One of the challenges with a lot of new judges is it takes them longer to be comfortable deciding cases, a little bit longer in the courtrooms themselves," she said. "Hearings take longer.

"On the very positive side, you get a lot of new ideas about how to handle cases, how to sentence people," she said. "It's an exciting and fresh time for them."

For Hager, the most challenging adjustment to make is "being neutral" whereas before he was always advocating for one side or the other, he said.

Most of a judge's work is done outside of the courtroom, he said, where support staff and other judges are there to help.

"The attorneys do a lot of the work in the court, and we do a lot out of court," Hager said.