Posted 4/24/13 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipan
Under most normal conditions, I’m not a big fan of increasing the size of government and/or the hiring of additional government employees. But in the case of the North Dakota Supreme Court requesting two additional judges to serve the caseload in the state’s Northwest Judicial District, I’m going to make an exception.
In fact, I would make a case that considering the dramatic increase in the number of cases that are being heard in this part of the state, the addition of two new judgeships may not be enough.
This week, the McKenzie County Farmer is carrying a front page story that clearly indicates that based on the tremendous increase in population that the oil boom has brought to this region of the state and the subsequent rapid increase in the number of cases being handled, having just two judges to serve McKenzie, Williams and Divide counties is no longer adequate.
Consider if you will, that since 2007, the entire Northwest Judicial District has seen its caseload increase nearly 82 percent from 23,272 cases in 2007 to 42,321 cases in 2012. During that same time period, the state’s total caseload only increased 18 percent rising from 153,105 cases in 2007 to 185,982 cases in 2012. Following a much steeper climb was the caseload in McKenzie County, in which all cases are being handled one week a month. From 2007 where 2,281 cases were handled in McKenzie County, the number of cases has jumped over 300 percent to where last year there were 9,179 cases.
To carry the comparison one step further, those two judges see on average 1,700 more cases per judge than the Northwest Judicial District average and 2,292 more cases per judge than the statewide average.
While the workload on these judges and their court staff is overwhelming, this staggering caseload is also being felt on those individuals who are also waiting for their “day in court.” As Judge Nelson noted, with the courts overwhelmed, people are sitting in jail way too long and the courts are forced to stack upward to 30 cases for the same time with 10 to 15 lawyers from across the state waiting to have their cases tried. And to make matters worse, if a case requires several hours or several days of proceedings, then it is common that it gets moved several months down the hearing calendar.
That is not the way that justice should be served. The people of northwest North Dakota deserve to have access to more judges and the right to a speedy trial.
The North Dakota Supreme Court has recognized the need for two additional judges to serve the Northwest Judicial District and has included that request in its budget.
Hopefully, the state Legislature will answer the call to improve the state’s judicial system and fund these needed positions in the Northwest Judicial District.