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Emily Welker, Published June 27 2013

Survey ranks Anderson, Olson top judicial candidates

BISMARCK – Judges don’t seem to lend themselves to being ranked on a one-to-five scale like a hotel review.

But the North Dakota State Bar Association, before judicial appointments like the upcoming addition of a ninth judge in Fargo, gives lawyers in the state a chance to rank the potential new judges in an anonymous survey.

The 10 candidates for the new judgeship finish up interviews with a nominating panel today. If the survey is any guide, Norman G. Anderson and Thomas R. Olson will be on the list of finalists for Gov. Jack Dalrymple to consider appointing to the bench later this year in the East Central Judicial District that includes Fargo.

Anderson and Olson were the only two candidates to average higher than a 4 among the five categories in the survey: professional competence, legal experience, judicial temperament, integrity and overall qualification.

Olson was tops in every category except competence, for which Anderson scored highest. The pair tied with the top ranking in overall qualification.

The results only represent the opinions of about 7 percent of the lawyers to whom surveys were sent. Only 176 attorneys responded to the East Central Judicial District survey, and they only ranked the fellow lawyers whom they knew, meaning each of the candidates was ranked by a different number of people – sometimes by as few as just 44 lawyers.

But Tony Weiler, executive director of the State Bar Association, said he thinks the surveys, which are also done before judicial elections, are valuable.

“This provides a service to the public, and maybe to the governor, who will ultimately have to pick,” he said.

Weiler said members of the nomination committee will also focus on how they’ve handled cases in the past, as well as any past discipline against candidates, such as ethical complaints or censures. The interviews may extend beyond that, too, he said.

“They might talk to coworkers, colleagues – or their childhood Little League coach,” Weiler said.

Duane Houdek, a permanent member of the Judicial Nominating Committee, said that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between high scores on the survey and the best candidate for the judiciary.

“When we talk to references, to court clerks, to law enforcement, anyone who comes in contact with the judiciary, they may have different answers” than people who responded to the survey did, he said.

Houdek, the executive secretary of the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners, said he and his five counterparts on the permanent committee, and the six temporary nominating committee members, are interviewing all the people listed as references for each of the candidates.

The other members of the permanent committee are Ward County Judge William McLees, Minot; Dale Mowry, Fargo, a budget technician for the Fargo Military Entrance Processing Station; Kari Ness, Jamestown, CEO of Newman Signs; Bill Neumann, a nonvoting member with the State Bar Association; Monte Rogneby, Bismarck, Vogel Law; and Connie Sprynczynatyk, Bismarck, executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities.

Temporary members are chosen, two each, by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the president of the State Bar Association and the governor.

The interviews are conducted to find out whether there are any idiosyncrasies or other characteristics that the candidates have that may make them unsuited for the role of judge.

“What we’re trying to do is vet these people,” Houdek said.

Houdek said while there isn’t one magic-bullet question that always gets right to the heart of whether someone will make a good judge or not, he always asks why the candidate wants to be a judge.

“I was a municipal judge for 5 years,” he said. “I won’t say it’s a classic thankless task – but people don’t often thank you for what you do.”

Surveys were also conducted for the candidates for the two newly created judgeships in the Northwest District in the heart of the state’s Oil Patch. The top scorer in either of the two surveys, with a 4.64, was Robin A. Schmidt, who was among four finalists for the Northwest District posts announced Wednesday.

The others are Cheri Clark, an assistant state’s attorney for Cass County; Paul Jacobson, disciplinary counsel in Bismarck; and Robert Martin, a Minot-based public defender.

Clark is also a candidate for the new judgeship in the East Central District, a district that includes Cass, Traill and Steele counties, though all of its judges keep their offices in Fargo – even Judge Wade Webb, who is technically chambered in Traill County.

Dalrymple has 30 days after finalists are named to pick a new judge, ask for a new list or call an election.

East Central Judicial District candidate rankings

A survey of members conducted by the State Bar Association of North Dakota ranked the 10 candidates being considered for a newly added judgeship in the three-county district that includes Cass County and Fargo. One-hundred and seventy-six members responded, ranking lawyers they had experience with on a five-point scale for professional competence, legal experience, judicial temperament, integrity and overall qualification. The number of lawyers ranking the candidates varied for each person. The numbers below are an average of all five rankings for each candidate.

4.32, Norman G. Anderson, Fargo

4.28, Thomas R. Olson, Fargo

3.86, Robert L. Stroup III, Fargo

3.85, Shanon M. Gregor, Fargo

3.76, Darcie M. Einarson, Grafton

3.68, Constance L. Cleveland, Fargo

3.53, Susan L. Bailey, West Fargo

3.48, Scott O. Diamond, Fargo

3.44, Cheri L. Clark, Fargo

3.17, Jenny Samarzja, Moorhead


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541