The North Dakota Supreme Court is considering several ways of shifting the state’s judicial districts to achieve more parity in judges, workload and district population.
Comments on the proposed changes are due to the Supreme Court by June 27. After reviewing comments, the Supreme Court will determine whether to schedule a hearing on the issue.
The court’s Judicial Planning Committee and the state’s court administrators took into consideration a caseload study, case filings, population and population trends, chamber locations, judge and court personnel work locations, and travel commitments for judges, according to a letter from the committee chairman, Justice Carol Ronning Kapsner, to Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle.
Right now, North Dakota has seven judicial districts, ranging in size from two to 12 counties. The largest is the South Central Judicial District, which occupies 15,990.5 square miles and includes Burleigh, Morton and 10 other counties.
South Central District Judge Gail Hagerty, the presiding judge for the district, said she asked whether the Judicial Planning Committee could look at moving two or three of the counties on the eastern side of the district to the Southeast Judicial District. The committee decided it was a good opportunity to look at districts across the state and find the best way to divvy up judicial resources.
The North Dakota Legislature approved adding three new judges to the district court system in 2013, with two to go to the Northwest Judicial District and one to the East Central Judicial District. Hagerty said the a study found the state was three judges short, so theoretically, that clears up the shortage.
However, disparities remain from district to district. The study showed that the South Central Judicial District still has a judge shortage, while the Southeast Judicial District has a judge surplus. Hagerty suggested Kidder, Logan and McIntosh counties — or some combination of them — could be scooted into the neighboring district.
“It turned into something bigger,” Hagerty said of her suggestion.
North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle addressed the redistricting in a State of the Judiciary address at the State Bar Association of North Dakota’s convention this week.
“The last time there was a major realignment of the districts was in 1979 — shortly after I came to the bench to put into perspective — and it is time to give them a fresh review,” he said. “The three new judges authorized by the Legislature will help to alleviate the increasing workload caused in great part by our flourishing economy. One of the goals of the review is to bring the caseloads per judge into a better balance.”
The committee came up with seven possible ways to change the districts and recommended three the committee considered the best. Each of three favored suggestions would add another district in northern North Dakota. The committee also recommended that a requirement in state law that no more than 70 percent of judge chambers may be located in cities with a population greater than 10,000 be eliminated.
Each of the three favored proposals would drop either Logan and McIntosh or Logan, McIntosh and Kidder counties from the South Central Judicial District.
Hagerty said the caseload in Kidder, Logan and McIntosh counties is small, though the time it takes judges to travel there is significant.
“The judge need for the counties listed is small and their distance from Bismarck would sometimes require judges to spend five hours on the road for a 30-minute hearing,” Donna Wunderlich, court administrator for the South Central and Southwest Judicial Districts, said.
Judges in the Southeast district may be better able to serve the needs of those counties, which also are more closely aligned with services in Stutsman County and Jamestown, such as jails and human service centers, Hagerty said.
“We’ve enjoyed working with the people in those counties, but it’s more about making best use of the judicial resources,” she said. “No matter how it turns out, we’re going to be serving all the counties in our district.”
Even with any of the proposed changes in place, the South Central Judicial District still would have a judge shortage. Caseloads are increasing district wide. Crime has increased, and so have civil cases of various types, at least in part due to the oil boom in western North Dakota spilling into the district.
“We are scrambling,” Hagerty said.
“Even if the Supreme Court were to adopt changes to the judicial district lines, continually increasing case filings in the South Central District will still leave the district short by more than one judge,” Wunderlich said. “We intend to ask for additional judicial resources in the South Central District when the 2015 Legislature meets.”
Hagerty is paying close attention to plans in Burleigh and Morton counties to expand or build new jail spaces, as existing detention space could be converted to office space for new judges and court personnel.
“We need to get in there and get some of that space” if the jail moves out of the Burleigh County Courthouse, she said.
The redistricting proposals are available at www.ndcourts.gov/Court/Notices/20130153/petition.pdf . Anyone who wishes to comment on them can email Penny Miller, clerk of the Supreme Court, at firstname.lastname@example.org by June 27.