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By Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published May 21 2010

Judge’s successor will avoid election for two years

BISMARCK – The successor to a North Dakota district judge who died this month will be able to serve two years in the job before he must run his own election campaign, even though the incumbent’s term ends in December.

Gov. John Hoeven intends to appoint a successor to Southeast District Judge James Bekken, who died of lung disease May 3. Bekken, 61, had been unopposed for re-election this fall as one of seven judges in the 11-county district.

North Dakota law gives the governor the option of ordering an election to pick Bekken’s successor, which could coincide with November’s general election. However, Hoeven intends to appoint a new judge, said his staff attorney, Ryan Bernstein.

“We think we’ll be able to fill the vacancy sooner through an appointment,” Bernstein said.

A North Dakota constitutional amendment, approved by voters in June 1998, says an appointed judge may serve at least two years in office before facing voters.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said the two-year minimum applies even in cases where an appointed judge is serving a term to which no one was elected. Bekken’s term was to end Dec. 31.

“It doesn’t make any difference when the vacancy occurs; the governor has the right to fill it,” Jaeger said. “The voters made the decision to have it this way.”

Former Gov. Ed Schafer pushed the amendment after one of his judicial appointments lost at the polls after less than a year in office, and a second had to wage a campaign against a better-known opponent.

Schafer appointee Warren “Duke” Albrecht lost his South Central District judgeship in 1994 to Bruce Haskell, a Burleigh County prosecutor, after serving eight months.

Two years later, Schafer’s appointee to the North Dakota Supreme Court, Mary Muehlen Maring, was thrust immediately into an election race against Sarah Vogel, a former state agriculture commissioner. Maring won with 54 percent of the vote.

District judges normally run for six-year terms. Although Bekken’s successor won’t have to run for election in November, when the appointee goes on the ballot in 2012, he or she will be running for another four years in office instead of a fresh six-year term, Jaeger said.

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