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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published January 10 2013

North Dakota chief justice bemoans ‘conveyor belt’ legal process

BISMARCK – North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said Wednesday that one new judge describes the state’s strained judicial system as “conveyor-belt justice.”

VandeWalle told a joint session of the Legislature during his State of the Judiciary address that the system has “increased efficiencies but cutting corners comes at the cost of serving the public.”

The largest challenge the state is facing is the rapid population growth that has come with the oil boom.

VandeWalle said a 15-minute court hearing is a luxury with the amount of casework judges are hearing across the state. He said that 15 minutes is five minutes longer than the state’s average protection order hearing and five times longer than the state’s average bail hearing.

“We have now reached a crisis point where judicial services are suffering throughout the state,” he said. “We can no longer serve the growing needs of one area of the state at the expense, by cannibalizing, (of) other parts of the state.”

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, couldn’t believe what little time is given for court proceedings and is asking himself and other legislators, “if it’s going that fast, is justice being served?”

VandeWalle has asked the Legislature for three additional judgeships – one in Fargo and two in northwest North Dakota.

Sen. Spencer Berry, R-Fargo, sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Berry said VandeWalle’s request for more employees wasn’t a surprise.

“As we grow and get bigger, we are going to need more,” he said.

Northwest Judicial District Judge David Nelson, one of two judges chambered in Williston, said the proposal to add two judges to his district will help ease the bottleneck.

“We are simply overwhelmed with the volume of cases,” Nelson said. “There are individuals who are sitting in jail longer than they should be because they’re waiting for trial because there’s only so many hours in a day to schedule things.”

An unofficial tally of judges’ caseloads in 2011 that excluded minor traffic cases showed that the average North Dakota judge handled 1,500 major cases while the two Williston judges each handled 3,200, Nelson said.

“I can guarantee you the 2012 numbers will be higher than that,” Nelson said.

Legislators will consider a request to add a judge in Williston and a judge in either Watford City or Stanley. While that will help, it won’t eliminate the challenges, Nelson said.

To address some of the needs, VandeWalle spoke as a proud alumnus of the University of North Dakota School of Law about the governor’s recommendation of $12 million for capital improvements to the school.

With a substantial majority of practicing lawyers in North Dakota coming out of the UND School of Law, VandeWalle said the investments will continue to impact the state.

“They chose to remain in North Dakota and become hard-working professionals who contribute to our economy and our communities,” he said.

The Judicial Department will also staff rural judges in communities with fewer than 15,000 people with three UND law students as part of the Rural Law Clerk Program during the summer months.

VandeWalle said 21 counties only have three or fewer attorneys, with many of those attorney’s nearing retirement age,

“We hope that this opportunity will show new lawyers the benefits of living and working in a small community and the satisfaction that can be found there,” VandeWalle said.

He also discussed many of the family and child mediation programs that are working well throughout the state.

Those programs include the state’s Parenting Coordinator Program, Problem Solving Courts, which is in the process of establishing a juvenile drug court to serve the Valley City and Jamestown region, and a plan to move forward with the North Dakota School Justice Partnership Leaders Program, which is aimed at keeping kids in school and out of court.


Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple in Williston contributed to this report.

Reach TJ Jerke at tjerke@forumcomm.com or 701-255-5607.


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