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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald, Published March 23 2012

N.D. federal judge says courtrooms in Grand Forks, Minot should be safe from cuts

GRAND FORKS - Federal officials are talking about saving money by closing some federal courthouses and courtrooms mostly in rural areas across the country, including ones in Grand Forks, Minot and Fergus Falls, Minn.

But Chief Judge Ralph Erickson of the U.S. District Court in North Dakota said the need for all four federal courtrooms in the state — in Grand Forks and Minot, as well as the main offices in Fargo and in Bismarck — should guarantee they remain open.

“I believe that our utilization numbers would indicate that the court rooms in Minot and Grand Forks are relatively safe,” Erickson said Thursday. “Our case load is up as a district. Some of it is up because of increased federal presence on Indian reservations, some of it is up because of increased economic activity in western North Dakota and some of it is up because of immigration issues.

Erickson oversees two other judges and three magistrate judges, one of them in Grand Forks. Magistrate judges, appointed by federal judges to assist them, preside mostly over misdemeanor cases, initial hearings on felony cases and detention hearings.

The federal court office in the courthouse in downtown Grand Forks has been unstaffed for decades. The same is true in Minot.

But Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal works out of her law office a block from the Grand Forks courthouse. Erickson regularly drives up from Fargo to hear cases.

Senechal said the courtroom “is used frequently.”

The federal courtroom is spacious and Grand Forks state district court has used it for cases that required lots of space.

The talk of such closings, both of court houses and courtrooms, has been going on for more than a decade by the federal court system's policy body, Erickson said.

In recent months, the list of 60 federal court facilities has been circulating.

But it’s the top 10 on the list that stand highest chances of being closed and Grand Forks and Minot are comfortably ranked relatively low, near 40, Erickson said.

The Associated Press reports that the top 10 being considered for closing all are in the South.

There were federal courtrooms in Devils Lake and Jamestown until about 40 years ago, and the state’s large geographic size argues for not closing any more, Erickson said.

“The real problem is the whole business of the people we serve, many of whom are indigent and for whom travel is difficult,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get those people to Grand Forks. And moving them to Fargo would be much more problematic.”