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Court overwhelmed

Posted 8/08/12 (Wed)

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

McKenzie County’s judicial system is busier than ever these days. The number of criminal cases seen in court in 2011 roughly doubled 2010’s criminal caseload, with 1,056 cases.
And according to Ari Johnson, an attorney with Johnson & Sundeen, McKenzie County is already on pace to double 2011’s numbers, having already filed 1,145 criminal cases as of Aug. 6, 2012.
“In 2011, we saw just over 1,000 criminal cases,” states Johnson. “This year, we reached over 1,000 at the beginning of July.”
It’s not necessarily that McKenzie County is seeing more crime, though technically, that’s the case.
“The types of criminal cases we are trying seem to match the types of cases we’ve always seen in McKenzie County. We are just seeing more of them,” Johnson states.
Those ‘types’ of cases being mainly DUIs, driving with a suspended license and drug-related incidents.
Another issue, according to Johnson, is that since the oil rush began, a lot of crimes have been committed by people who are new to North Dakota and are unfamiliar with state regulations.
“For example, we see a lot of people who have been caught fishing without a license,” states Johnson. “Fishing without a license, while a misdemeanor, is still a North Dakota law that many newcomers are unaware of.”
McKenzie County is one of the six counties in the Northwest Judicial District (NWJD) of North Dakota. The other five counties are Williams, Burke, Divide, Mountrail and Ward - at least half of which have been directly impacted by the boom.
According to Carolyn Probst, Trial Court administrator for the NWJD, the Northwest Judicial District, which has a total of seven judges, has the highest caseload per judge statewide.
In 2011, the NWJD had a total of 14,548 civil and criminal filings, which evens out to 2,079 cases per judge. The East Central Judicial District, which has eight judges and includes Cass County, North Dakota’s most populated county with the cities of Fargo and West Fargo, had a total of 13,799 civil and criminal filings in 2011, which was 1,725 cases per judge.
To break things down even further, in the NWJD, there are five Ward County judges that preside over cases in Burke, Mountrail and Ward counties. There are two Williams County judges that preside over cases in Divide, McKenzie and Williams counties - three counties in the heart of the oil rush.
The two Williams County judges, in 2011, presided over 3,345 cases per judge, where the five Ward County judges saw a total of 1,552 cases per judge. Probst notes that the Ward County caseload is within the statewide average, whereas the Williams County judge caseload is two times the statewide average.
Additionally, Johnson states that for a trial to occur, a judge, clerk, court recorder and courtroom must all be available.
“We are strapped for these things,” states Johnson. “McKenzie County only has one courtroom and Williams County has two.”
Fortunately, the Northwest Judicial District has found ways to work smarter, not harder.
“Many people in this area are already working as hard as they possibly can, so working harder is not an option. We have to work smarter,” Johnson states. “McKenzie County operates so efficiently that even with seeing nearly three times the caseloads as two years ago, we have been able to leave the courtroom in the same amount of time or more quickly. We are constantly improving our efficiency without sacrificing attention to each individual case.”
Probst does state that there are plans to add a judge to the Northwest Judicial District, though it is not yet determined when that will happen or where the judge will be assigned.