Posted 6/09/15 (Tue)
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
Effective July 1, 2015, four additional district court judges with chambers, including a second judgeship in Watford City, will take their respective seats in the districts assigned to them by the Supreme Court of the state of North Dakota.
The need for additional judicial resources, however, continues beyond these four new judgeships. Based on population distribution, caseload statistics, facilities, recommendations from the presiding judges of those judicial districts, and consultation with the judges of those specific judicial districts, the greatest need was deemed to be in the Northwest, South Central, and Southwest Judicial Districts.
“The numbers say it all,” says Judge Robin Schmidt of the Northwest Judicial District, chambered in Watford City. “In 2010, there were a total of 3,911 cases filed in McKenzie County. That includes criminal cases, probates, divorces, traffic cases, and all other civil matters. In 2014, there was a total of 9, 846 cases filed. That includes 2,096 criminal cases. The numbers have continued to increase, even though the oil industry has slowed in recent months.”
The Northwest Judicial District is comprised of Divide, McKenzie, and Williams counties. Watford City is the county seat in McKenzie County and Williston is the county seat for Williams County. For the past several years, these counties have been the center of the oil and gas activity in North Dakota, and each of the counties has experienced significant population increases during the last four years. In McKenzie County, from 2010 to 2014, there was a 72.9 percent increase in population. And in the Northwest Judicial District, in the same amount of years, there was a significant amount of case filings. In 2010, there were 11,179 cases filed and in 2014, there were 23,914 cases filed.
“We have 350 open and filed criminal cases right now,” said Jake Rodenbiker, McKenzie County State’s attorney. “We are on pace to meet or exceed last year’s number of 2,100 criminal cases filed. This doesn’t include juvenile or civil cases, of which we have in the low double digits. It also omits contested traffic tickets of which we usually have a dozen or two new ones each month. Judge Schmidt has nearly all of the criminal, civil, and juvenile cases that go along with our office, but she has a host of other cases too where other parties and attorneys are involved. The exact, or even approximate number she has I can’t say. But it is accurate to say right now Judge Schmidt has the vast majority of all pending court cases in McKenzie County.”
To keep up with the massive amount of cases in McKenzie County, Judge Schmalenberger, a surrogate court judge, recently agreed to help out by presiding over some of the older criminal cases in the county. According to Rodenbiker, Judge Schmalenberger, a retired district judge who sat many years in Dickinson, was in Watford City from January through April 2015 by appointment of the North Dakota Supreme Court at the request of Judge Schmidt.
“He presided over several criminal cases and held several jury trials,” stated Judge Schmidt. “The goal was to get the oldest cases resolved while I continued to work with the heavy caseload continuing to come in. When Judge Schmalenberger would have jury trials, I would have court in the trailer or down in the second hearing room. It was very beneficial to have him here and we are grateful for his willingness to help us out.”
Before Judge Schmidt was appointed to her position in 2013, there was not a judge chambered in McKenzie County. When Judge Schmidt started, the court had to create a case flow system to effectively handle the increased load. According to Judge Schmidt, having one judge has helped to improve how timely cases are handled, but it has not been enough. One judge, in her opinion, can only hear so many cases on any given day or week.
“Despite setting a very busy court schedule, there is no getting around the fact that Judge Schmidt can only be in one place at a time and there are limits to the amount of time even the most diligent professionals can spend at work,” stated Rodenbiker. “That’s a long way of saying two judges will generally lead to more efficient case flow. Both the prosecution and the defense have the right to a speedy trial, so with two judges able to cover criminal cases, it should benefit defendants and victims alike, and result in swifter justice for the most part.”
Even with an additional district court judge, the McKenzie County State’s Attorney’s Office will be in court more often. With 20 jury trials in the last year, according to Rodenbiker, that is a fact that is hard to imagine. But, he says, it’s their office’s mission and he assures that his team will rise to meet the challenge along with their law enforcement partners.
“Civil litigants are now being scheduled out for trials to the end of 2016,” says Judge Schmidt. “Having two judges will allow them an opportunity to have their cases heard much faster. I cannot give a precise number of days, weeks, or months that it will decrease, but I know it will allow us to get them into court quicker. I’m happy and relieved there is another judge being chambered in Watford City. It will be nice to have a colleague next door and it will be extremely beneficial to the litigants to have another judge here to help with the caseload. It will allow me to get opinions and orders out more efficiently and hear cases on a more timely basis.”
There are many factors, many individuals, and an extensive amount of time that went into getting a second judge chambered in McKenzie County. And because of a significant need that existed in McKenzie County, documented by numerous caseload studies, the hard work it has taken in getting a second district judge has paid off.
“Ultimately, the credit goes to the Judiciary itself for proposing the new judges in their budget request to the Legislature,” says Rodenbiker, “then, the Legislature itself and the Governor for appropriating the money needed to fund them. The state legislators who serve McKenzie County were supportive. In addition to my office, Judge Schmidt herself and the Board of County Commissioners also made formal comments recommending one of the four judges be chambered in Watford City.”
According to Judge Schmidt, she requested a second judge in Watford City and a fourth judge in Williston. The need in the district was great and has been well documented. With recent studies showing that McKenzie County had enough cases for over two judges, in Judge Schmidt’s request for a second judge, she noted that she had wanted to start an adult drug court in this specific district since she started.
“I have been unable to even begin the process of starting an adult drug court because of the heavy caseload,” said Judge Schmidt. “There is a need for an adult drug court in this area and a second judge being chambered here will give us an opportunity to see whether we can make it happen.”
Getting a second judge for McKenzie County, in Judge Schmidt’s opinion, was a group effort between the court, the Legislature, the county, and the local attorneys who have told the personal stories of litigants who can’t get into court. She said everyone recognized the need out here and everyone has responded to that need.
Rodenbiker adds that “Moving from zero to two judges chambered in McKenzie County within the short span of a couple of years goes to show not only the unprecedented growth our county faces, but also how public servants at every level of government are striving to fulfill the demands of justice.”