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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published July 18 2012

ND chief justice to seek new judgeships to deal with growing caseload

BISMARCK — North Dakota's chief justice said he will ask the Legislature to approve new judgeships to help with a growing court workload brought on by breakneck oil development in western North Dakota.

A new report compiled by the nonprofit National Center for State Courts suggests that three to six new judgeships are needed, including at least two in the center of the state's oil boom in northwestern North Dakota.

The report was given to The Associated Press by state Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, who said he wasn't yet sure how many judgeships he would request.

"We're still looking at the statistics, but we will definitely be asking for more judicial services," VandeWalle said in an interview Tuesday.

He said the North Dakota Supreme Court's administrative council would meet soon to discuss the report from the center, a research and consulting organization that has compiled assessments for the state in the past. The council includes the presiding judges of North Dakota's seven judicial districts.

The state currently has 44 judges who handle trials. Five are based in Williston or Dickinson, the cities closest to the oil boom, and five others are based in Minot, on the eastern edge of the region.

During the 1990s, the number of county and state district judges was whittled from 53 to 42 — including several western positions — as part of a court consolidation plan that put all of North Dakota's trial judges on the state payroll. Previously, some judges were county employees.

But some of those eliminated positions are now needed, VandeWalle said.

The Legislature agreed three years ago to add new state district judgeships in Minot and Jamestown. The new workload report estimates that along with at least two new judges in the six-county district in northwestern North Dakota, court workloads also justify putting two new judges in Fargo, one in Bismarck and perhaps one in Dickinson.

North Dakota's judicial system has not had a similar workload analysis for a decade.

To meet the demands of court consolidation, the state Supreme Court abolished or transferred vacant judgeships away from several rural western communities, including Bowman, Hettinger, Watford City and Stanley.

"Right or wrong, when we had to cut judges, we took one out of Watford City and moved them to Minot, because Minot needed it," VandeWalle recalled. "Knowing what we know now, we never would have done that, but we did."

One former district judge regularly drove more than 50 miles from his chambers in Stanley to Minot to hear cases, and his job was transferred to Minot when he retired in 2006. But now Stanley has gained new prominence as the county seat of Mountrail County, which is North Dakota's leading oil-producing county.

"There's still work in Minot, but now Stanley has a workload, so we have judges from Minot driving out to Stanley several days during the week," VandeWalle said.

A state Bar Association task force recently held meetings in Bismarck, Dickinson, Williston and Minot to gather information about the impact of oil development on the state's justice system. The panel's chairman, Bismarck attorney Jack McDonald, said the group's report should be completed shortly.

"I'm reasonably certain there will probably be two or three new judges recommended," McDonald said Tuesday, noting that new judges will need office space, a courtroom, clerks and other staff.

"It's kind of like a Rubik's cube," he said. "There's a lot of different parts, and they all have to mesh together."

The state's judicial system usually submits its proposed budget in early November to the governor, who will include the plan in a December budget recommendations to the Legislature.

Judge David W. Nelson, who is one of two district judges in Williston, said there is enough work in the Northwest District to keep four new judges busy, from civil disputes to an upsurge in the number of violent crimes.

"In sheer numbers, we're coming in early, staying late, coming in weekends, and we don't have near the time to devote to the thought process that goes into these opinions. It's more of a triage. You just do what you can," Nelson said.

"It's an interesting and wonderful time to be here," Nelson added. "But it's getting very difficult to get the work done."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.