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Patrick Springer, Published March 17 2014

Nicholas Spaeth, former ND attorney general, found dead in Fargo

FARGO – Nicholas Spaeth, a former North Dakota attorney general and gubernatorial candidate, died Sunday at the age of 64.

Spaeth served as attorney general from 1985 to 1992, when he was the Democratic candidate for governor, a race he lost to Republican Ed Schafer.

Police were called Sunday afternoon to Spaeth’s apartment on the 500 block of Eighth Street South, where his body was found.

Dispatchers received a call of a possible suicidal person, but police are not characterizing the death except that it appears there was no foul play, Lt. Joel Vettel of the Fargo Police Department said Monday.

The family was unable to contact Spaeth, and called the police Sunday for assistance, said Kevin Spaeth, one of Spaeth’s sons.

“He had some heart issues,” Kevin Spaeth said. “There’s no clear cause.”

After leaving politics in 1992, Spaeth resumed the private practice of law. He opened a Fargo office for the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, based in Minneapolis.

Next he served as general counsel for two Fortune 500 firms, H&R Block and Intuit, as well as general counsel of General Electric’s conglomerate of insurance companies.

Spaeth recently was involved in re-establishing a legal practice in North Dakota, with offices in Fargo and Bismarck, with a focus on the oil and gas industry.

In December he joined Fremstad Law in Fargo in a counsel role.

“I think he was moving forward and looking forward to developing a law practice in North Dakota again,” said Leo Wilking, a longtime friend of Spaeth’s whose law office was next door. “I thought he seemed optimistic about the future.”

Spaeth entered the 1984 race for attorney general as a young lawyer and political newcomer – but one with a golden resume.

He graduated from Stanford University and Stanford Law School, where he was managing editor of the law review. He also was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

After law school, Spaeth was a law clerk for Judge Myron Bright of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1978-79, and for Justice Byron White of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1979 to 1984. He was believed at the time to be the only person from North Dakota ever to serve as law clerk of an active U.S. Supreme Court justice.

After his clerkship, Spaeth joined the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo in 1984, the position he held when he ran for attorney general.

“It was easy for us to be proud of him as our candidate for that job,” said Gorman King, a former Fargo lawyer and businessman and longtime friend of Spaeth’s. “He was gifted, ambitious and hard-working.”

Spaeth was the favorite when he entered the governor’s race in 1992, but another Democrat, state Sen. Bill Heigaard from Langdon, was the party’s endorsed candidate. Spaeth won the nomination in a primary challenge – a candidacy that divided the Democratic-NPL Party.

Spaeth won office despite not being endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Although an avid hunter, he also was an advocate of gun control, a position that once brought the late Charlton Heston to Fargo.

Although Spaeth once yearned to serve on the federal bench, he apparently gave up that ambition after losing the gubernatorial race, and decided to pursue corporate law instead, Wilking and King said.

Schafer, who served two terms, recalled Spaeth as an articulate and popular candidate.

“He was the highest vote-getter in North Dakota to date, as I recall,” Schafer said. “Very popular, capable and smart candidate.”

But Schafer rode to victory, touting his record in business as the skill set the state, then struggling financially, needed at the time.

After retiring in 2009 from his job as chief legal officer for the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, Iowa, Spaeth pursued an academic career. He unsuccessfully sued a number of law schools, including Georgetown University and the University of Michigan, alleging discrimination.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who succeeded Spaeth as North Dakota attorney general, credited him with “modernizing the operations” of the office and doing an excellent job.

“I became friends with Nick in the 1980s when we were both rookie campaigners,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “We had a great time on the campaign trail. Throughout his life, Nick had a passion for serving the people of North Dakota.”

Gov. Jack Dalrymple also noted Spaeth’s contributions in serving the state.

“We are very saddened that Nicholas Spaeth has passed away,” Dalrymple said in a statement. “He served the state of North Dakota faithfully as attorney general for two full terms. Our prayers are with his family and friends.”

Arrangements are pending with Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522