Posted 7/24/13 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
Dennis Johnson, McKenzie County’s State’s Attorney, has tendered his resignation from that position effective Sept. 1.
According to Johnson, his decision to resign was the result of the McKenzie County County Commissioners’ decision on July 15 to transition from a “part-time” state’s attorney to a full-time position.
And because a full-time state’s attorney is not permitted to have a private law practice, Johnson, who is a partner of the Johnson & Sundeen Law Office in Watford City, had no choice but to resign.
“A part-time state’s attorney is simply a lawyer who is allowed to represent private clients in addition to his work for the county,” states Johnson. “Most of the counties in the state have part-time state’s attorneys. Our office has always put the county’s work as first priority for three decades and the county work has often been more than full-time hours.”
The county commission, according to Johnson, believes that the county’s legal needs are too great to share, so they have chosen to seek a new state’s attorney who can dedicate all of his or her time to the county’s legal needs.
“The county has adequate resources to locate a qualified, full-time attorney to fulfill those needs,” states Johnson. “I have made the difficult, but necessary, decision to turn that job over to the county’s appointee.”
Johnson states that he reached this decision because he, along with the lawyers in the private law firm that he founded in Watford City in 1980, want to keep fulfilling the legal needs of those who live and work in the county.
“Our friends and neighbors should not have to travel outside the Island Empire just to write a will, probate an estate, review an oil lease, or resolve a dispute in court,” states Johnson.
Johnson says that after he was informed of the county commissioners’ decision to transition the state’s attorney office to a full-time position on July 17, he decided to tender his resignation.
Johnson, who is the longest serving State’s Attorney in North Dakota, was appointed State’s Attorney in August of 1982, and he has run and been successful in each election since then.
“With my years of experience, along with those of his law partner, Ross Sundeen, and associate attorney Ariston Johnson, who act as Assistant State’s Attorneys for the county, we have 55 years of experience prosecuting criminal cases and representing the county,” states Johnson. “I have prosecuted every type of case from speeding tickets to murder for the county.”
But, according to Johnson, there is more to the State’s Attorney’s job than just prosecuting cases. He was also successful in suing the federal government for the county over oil royalty rights, which has resulted in an annual stream of income to the county in the millions of dollars.
Still, Johnson acknowledges it was not an easy decision to resign.
“It has been an honor to serve the community as your elected state’s attorney for more than three decades, and if we could continue that service without falling short of the needs of our clients, we would,” states Johnson. “The commissioners’ decision to change to a full-time state’s attorney has forced us to choose between representing the county on a full-time basis or representing the people who live and work in the county. And, we simply have to trust that the county will appoint someone who cares as much and works as hard for the county as we have since 1982, when I was first appointed, to keep McKenzie County a safe place to live, no matter the challenges we have faced from boom, to bust, and back to boom.”
Johnson says that he is resigning before the end of his term so that he will not stand in the way of the commissioners moving forward with what they believe is best for the county.
According to Linda Svihovec, McKenzie County auditor, the county has already posted the job vacancy and is hopeful that the position can be filled by Sept. 1.
“By law, the state’s attorney must be a resident of the county,” stated Svihovec. “If the county doesn’t find a candidate before Sept. 1, the commissioners may contract with another attorney or other state’s attorney for interim services.”