April 24, 2013

More judges needed in NW Judicial District

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

In the Northwest Judicial District (NWJD), only two judges preside over an ever-increasing caseload in the rapidly-growing McKenzie, Williams and Divide counties. Those two judges see, on average, 1,700 more cases per judge than the NWJD average and 2,292 more cases per judge than the statewide average. With so much going on, is it time for the North Dakota Supreme Court to consider placing a full-time judgeship back in McKenzie County?
Before the oil boom, McKenzie County had been experiencing a declining population, and in correlation, a declining number of court cases. Which is why, in 2002, the judgeship that was seated in McKenzie County was removed. Since then, two judges in Williston have been handling the caseloads for all of McKenzie County, as well as Williams and Divide counties.
However, in 2010, the numbers started shifting the other way. Suddenly, and seemingly overnight, the McKenzie County court and all the people affiliated with it were overwhelmed.
According to Carolyn Probst, Trial Court administrator for the NWJD, in 2007 the total number of case filings was 23,272. That number rose by roughly 1,000 until 2010, when the number of case filings rose from 25,788 in 2009 to 30,793. In 2011, that number rose nearly 3,000 more. And last year, there were 42,321 case filings in the NWJD in 2012.
In 2012, 9,179 cases were filed just in McKenzie County.
“There are no open days anymore,” states Judge David Nelson, who is chambered in Williston. Judge Nelson is one of the two judges designated to McKenzie, Williams and Divide counties. “We come in early, we stay late, and we come in on Saturdays and Sundays because we can only do so much during the day.”
As for court in McKenzie County, Ari Johnson, assistant State’s Attorney for McKenzie County, states that it depends on the type of hearing.
“On Monday afternoon, when we have bond hearings, it can be a little hectic. And when we have master calendar, in which there is a judge in the courtroom all day for a multitude of prescheduled hearings, there are days when the entire courthouse is full of people and the courtroom is standing room only,” states Johnson.
North Dakota is divided into seven Judicial Districts. McKenzie County is in the NWJD, along with Williams, Divide, Mountrail, Burke and Ward counties.
The NWJD is divided in half, with two judges presiding over McKenzie, Williams and Divide counties, and five judges presiding over Ward, Burke and Mountrail counties.
The five judges that preside over Ward, Burke and Mountrail counties see, on average, 2,160 cases per judge, while the two judges that preside over McKenzie, Williams and Divide counties see 3,900 cases on average.
“The next highest number of cases per judge is 1,787, which is in the Southwest Judicial District, an area that has also been significantly impacted by the oil boom,” states Judge Bill McLees, the presiding judge for the Northwest Judicial District.
“We are absolutely overwhelmed in the district,” states Judge Nelson. “People are sitting in jail way too long, and we used to have days to write opinions, but those are gone too.”
With such limited options for dealing with the high volume, Judge Nelson states that the judicial system has started stacking cases in an effort to serve the people the best they can.
“We started stacking three cases at a time,” states Judge Nelson. “Then we went to six, then 12, then 15, and on up. Currently, we are stacking 30 cases for the same time.”
“On court days, there are anywhere from 10 to 15 different lawyers from around the state filling the courtrooms.”
According to Nelson, these lawyers are there to represent clients in cases that have been set for trial on the exact same day at the exact same time.
“It is the only way we are getting things done. If something cannot be stacked, it just gets pushed farther and farther out,” states Nelson.
“One case needed two hours, and it was pushed back to mid-June,” states Nelson. “Another trial requested a full day and needed to be rescheduled. The nearest time was in August. Then we had to schedule a three-day trial and the nearest time we had was next January or February.”
“The clerks must prioritize their workload, which is driven significantly by the State and Federal Constitutional rights of criminal offenders,” states Probst. “A critical aspect of the courts is its ability to provide the appropriate attention deserved and needed by its litigants, and our ability to uphold the reputation and trust of the judiciary in the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, this is more and more challenging as our caseload continues to increase beyond the existing resources available district-wide.”
According to Judge McLees, the only way the two Williston judges have been able to stem the tide has been due to the Honorable Ronald A. Goodman, a Surrogate Judge who came out of retirement last November, for one week a month, to handle cases in McKenzie County.
“Judge Goodman travels to Watford City from Oakes one week out of every month to process the McKenzie County caseload,” states Judge McLees. “And all the judges in the district are extremely appreciative of his willingness to help out in this manner.”
“Because we have a judge in McKenzie County for one week out of each month, as well as having access to other judges in the district, I do not believe our caseload yet warrants a full-time judge in Watford City,” states Johnson. “Some months having one judge a week is more than enough, and others it is barely enough. But if we only have one week of work for a judge to do a month, it would be more convenient for a judge to travel to Watford City one week a month, versus a judge traveling from Watford City to other county seats three weeks out of the month.”
Probst states that the NWJD has requested that the North Dakota Supreme Court appoint two additional judgeships to help shoulder the district’s rising caseload, along with two additional full-time clerk positions in the Williston clerk’s office and one additional clerk position in the Minot clerk’s office.
It is yet uncertain where, if granted, the two judges would be seated. But according to Probst, Watford City has definitely demonstrated a need.
“Western North Dakota has changed so much and Williams and McKenzie counties have definitely been hit the hardest,” states Probst. “Their numbers far exceed those of the other counties and warrant strong consideration for the placement of a permanent judgeship.”
No matter where the potential judges are seated, Probst states that any additional staff in the district would greatly help.