The changes suggested for North Dakota courts, explained in Supreme Court Justice Gerald VandeWalle’s State of the Judiciary address, are well-justified and practical responses to phenomenal change in the state. The need for three additional judges, along with additional support staff, is necessary since judges and personnel have been shifted to meet the needs of rapidly increasing populations across western North Dakota.
Lawmakers should be supportive of the requests from the chief justice. The budgetary requests are reasonable and make sense.
Easy access to and timely action by the courts benefit the general public, often when people face difficult challenges. When legal issues get hung up in court bottlenecks, it’s often regular citizens who pay the penalty. Certainly, in criminal cases, timely action should be a part of justice.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple in his budget message supported funding additional positions for the district courts.
VandeWalle emphasized access to the courts in his remarks. He said that “access to the courts and the ability to participate in one’s own case are key concepts in delivering justice. We do not always meet that goal, but we remain intent on keeping open the window of opportunity for all who seek remedy in our courts.”
To that end, he proposed a new citizens access coordinator position to provide “procedural advice and education to self-represented litigants.”
Surprisingly, more than 6,500 people represented themselves in civil, family, juvenile and in felony, misdemeanor and infraction cases last year.
Related to that, the courts intend to create three internships for law students to address a shortage of attorneys in rural counties. The three interns will be attached to judges with chambers in communities with 15,000 or fewer people.
These citizens initiatives are less costly than adding new judgeships. However, they are very important in making the system work for people, no matter where they live.
The courts in North Dakota have been busy. They have been responsive to the needs of a changing society. There have been innovations such as drug courts and mediation in the Parenting Coordinator Program. In addition, the court system in North Dakota has been open to improvement, as seen by how the legal community has embraced the results of the study on racial and ethnic bias.
The Legislature should do its part to help the state’s courts meet their responsibilities.