Fiery rhetoric such as “Let’s get it on” and “I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you” isn’t typically heard in races for the North Dakota Supreme Court.
But Bismarck attorney Robert Bolinske Sr. isn’t your typical Supreme Court candidate.
“I’m a brawler,” he said.
The proverbial gloves came off during a Cass County Bar Association meeting on Sept. 22 at the Avalon Events Center in Fargo, where 40 to 50 attorneys expecting to learn more about the candidates watched Bolinske launch into a tirade against his opponent, Southeast Judicial District Judge Jerod Tufte.
“It was the strangest damn thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Fargo attorney Nick Thornton said during an interview Tuesday. “I’m a criminal defense lawyer, so nothing much shocks me, but that was pretty impressive.”
The event wasn’t recorded, but Bolinske, Tufte and several attorneys who attended corroborated what happened.
After introducing himself to the audience, Bolinske became upset when Tufte’s own introduction highlighted a State Bar Association survey released in June that gave Tufte higher marks than Bolinske in three of four categories – including judicial temperament.
Bolinske noted that only 248 of 2,934 survey recipients responded, and in an interview Tuesday, he accused Tufte of contacting his friends to tip the survey in his favor.
“Not only was the survey statistically flawed, it was jiggered … and it made me mad,” Bolinske said.
As stunned attorneys looked on, Bolinske asked Tufte if he would allow such a poll as evidence in his courtroom and said he didn’t trust the poll or Tufte.
“That’s exactly what I said: ‘I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you,’ ” Bolinske recalled.
Thornton said it was “surreal” to watch.
“It was entirely unbecoming of a judicial candidate,” he said.
Maurice McCormick, an attorney and partner at Vogel Law Firm for more than 40 years, said he stepped in “and I just basically said, ‘That’s enough. This is not what this is about.’ ”
Bolinske – who pointedly asked McCormick who he was, having never met him before – said Tuesday he didn’t believe it was McCormick’s place to intervene.
“I think Jerod Tufte should be able to protect himself,” he said.
Bolinske acknowledged saying, “Let’s get it on” at one point during his rant, but said he meant it as a campaign challenge and not a physical challenge to Tufte.
“He’s an attorney, and it’s kind of rough and tumble, and I’m a brawler,” he said.
Tufte, 41, who was appointed to the bench in Valley City in July 2014 after three years as the governor’s legal counsel, said via phone Tuesday that Bolinske’s shouting and outburst were “clearly inappropriate” for a judicial candidate and demonstrated a “pretty stark difference” in their temperaments.
When Bolinske announced his candidacy in March, he told Forum News Service he wasn’t impressed with the quality of some judges and would “jack them up” in his Supreme Court opinions if elected. The 72-year-old practicing trial attorney and Harvard Law School graduate also boasted that he was “strong as a moose and twice as ornery.”
The two candidates will compete in the Nov. 8 election for a 10-year term on the Supreme Court, seeking the seat held by Justice Dale Sandstrom, who is retiring at the end of this year.
The bar association’s survey asked attorneys to rate the qualifications of judicial candidates in four categories on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. Tufte received an average rank of 3.96, compared with 2.99 for Bolinske.
Bolinske’s lowest rank was a 2.5 in judicial temperament, while Tufte received a 4.05 in that category. Tufte also ranked more than 1 point higher in professional competence and integrity, while Bolinske ranked higher in legal experience by two-hundredths of a point.
Asked whether his actions at the Fargo meeting should call his judicial temperament into question, Bolinske replied, “Temperament, smemperament. What did Jesus do when he chased the thieves out of the temple? … Well, it was a just thing.”
“You can tell I go from zero to 60 pretty quickly,” he added.