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North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Jon Jensen is next chief justice

North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Jon Jensen is next chief justice

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The newest member of the North Dakota Supreme Court will be its new chief justice.

State Court Administrator Sally Holewa opened 56 ballots on Thursday returned by the state's district court judges and Supreme Court justices to determine who will succeed Gerald VandeWalle, who is stepping down as chief. Justice Jon Jensen received 39 votes to Justice Lisa Fair McEvers' 16.

One ballot was returned blank. One member of the judiciary did not return a ballot.

"We work collaboratively as a court. I don't think that's going to change," Jensen, 54, told reporters after the ballot count.

He said he sought the position as he is "passionate about North Dakota's judicial system." 

"We really do have an excellent judicial system," Jensen said. A priority of his will be "generating input from our district court judges."

Gov. Doug Burgum appointed Jensen, a former district court judge and presiding judge of the Northeast Central Judicial District, to the high court in 2017. He plans to run for a full 10-year term in 2020.

Jensen's term as chief justice is effective Jan. 1. He succeeds VandeWalle, who has served on the court since 1978 and has been chief since 1993.

VandeWalle, 86, chose not to seek another term as chief justice -- saying he no longer has the energy required for the post -- but will continue to serve on the court. He has five years left on his term.

"I don't have any doubts about any of the people I'm currently serving with's ability to lead the court," he told the Tribune.

VandeWalle, the longest-serving chief justice in the U.S., said the position is primarily administrative in nature, involving budgeting. He said he has the court's four other justices assist him in his duties and keeps them apprised of issues.

"I think it has been a privilege and it’s an honor to serve," VandeWalle said.

Jensen, McEvers and Justice Daniel Crothers sought the top spot on the state's highest court, but none received a majority of votes in a November ballot count. Jensen and McEvers then proceeded to a runoff.

"I think all of us would have done a fantastic job," Jensen said.

McEvers, who would have been the first female chief justice had she been selected, said the court is in good hands with Jensen.

"He'll do an excellent job," said McEvers, who was reelected in 2018 to a 10-year term. "He has good qualifications, and I'm of course disappointed, but I'm happy for him, and the court system will, like I said, be in good hands, and that was the vote of the district judges. I'm pleased with it."

Jensen said the state's judiciary is "close-knit." North Dakota has 52 district court judges in eight judicial districts and five Supreme Court justices, all elected positions.

"It's a very personal judicial system," said Jensen, who was a district judge from 2013-17 after 22 years in private practice in Grand Forks. He is a 1990 alum of the University of North Dakota School of Law.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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