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By Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published June 14 2010

North Dakota town may lose judge’s position

BISMARCK – The death of a New Rockford state district judge may result in his job being moved elsewhere, despite pleas from local officials and a state lawmaker to keep the position where it is.

Southeast District Judge James Bekken, a longtime resident of New Rockford, died May 3 of lung disease. Bekken’s death has triggered a North Dakota Supreme Court review of whether the judgeship he held should be moved outside the 11-county district or to another community within it.

The district’s administrator, Rodney Olson, filed a request with the court Friday asking that the position be transferred to Carrington, a larger community about 20 miles south of New Rockford.

Carrington is closer to Jamestown, the district’s largest city, which would make travel more convenient for attorneys and judges in the area, Olson said in his filing.

The move would “add to the flexibility of judge use within the district,” Olson said.

North Dakota has 44 district judges, who are assigned among seven districts. The Southeast District has two judges each in Valley City and Jamestown and a single judge in Wahpeton, Ellendale and New Rockford.

The Supreme Court could move the New Rockford position to another district, but that possibility is considered remote. When the Legislature approved two new judgeships last year, one of the positions was put in Jamestown because the region was considered undermanned.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, and Eddy County State’s Attorney Travis Peterson have been among those asking the Supreme Court to keep the judgeship in place.

“This is important to a town the size of New Rockford,” Heckaman said in a letter to the court. “Every person accessing services in our community is important to keeping our town viable.”

Peterson said any decrease in travel time from moving the judgeship to Carrington would be “negligible.”

“Additionally, the Eddy County courthouse is already equipped, established and usable ... without the need for upfront expenditures or improvements,” Peterson said in a separate letter.

Carrington is the county seat of Foster County to the south. The Foster County Commission approved a resolution last month supporting the New Rockford judgeship, although it said the commissioners wouldn’t mind if it were moved

to Carrington.

“We didn’t want to see it leave the north part of the district,” said Dwayne Erickson, chairman of the Foster County Commission.

The commission is making space for a new judge by moving Foster County’s health agency into separate quarters downtown, Erickson said.

“I think it will probably occur,” he said of the transfer. “But anything can happen. Winds blow different ways.”

Gov. John Hoeven will appoint Bekken’s successor after the Supreme Court decides where the new judge will be headquartered. Ryan Bernstein, the governor’s staff attorney, said Hoeven believes the opening will attract good candidates, regardless of location.

District judgeship transfers are fairly rare. It last happened in December 2005, when the Supreme Court ordered a judgeship in Stanley, in northwestern North Dakota, moved to Minot when incumbent Robert Holte retired the following year.


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