North Dakota State of the Judiciary: “access to the courts and the ability to participate in one’s own case are key concepts in delivering justice”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of current and prior State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Chief Justice Gerald W. VandeWalle gave his State of the Judiciary to a joint session of the North Dakota legislature on January 9. No formal resolution appears to have been adopted, instead a motion was made on the floors to convene in joint session for the speech. See the respective House and Senate journals. The text of the speech is here.

Highlights below the fold.

I begin this State of the Judiciary by observing that access to the courts and the ability to participate in one’s own case are key concepts in delivering justice. We do not always meet that goal, but we remain intent on keeping open the window of opportunity for all who seek remedy in our courts. To that extent, I am pleased to report that for the most part the state of the North Dakota Judicial System is healthy.

Task Force To Study Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts

As our economy grows our population becomes more diversified. We need to be aware and understand what that means to the judicial system. We intend to keep working on this issue. The judicial branch has neither the power of the sword nor the purse but instead must rely on the respect of the people in order to carry out its duties. The trust of the people in our ability to run a fair and impartial court system is not just an ideal but a necessity for us to function as our Constitution envisions.

Mediation Program

Five years ago, we started a mediation pilot program to address the needs of families going through child custody proceedings…I am very pleased to report that our program is having the outcome we had hoped for. The evaluation found that the mediation process reduced the time to settlement by as much as 5 months in the Northwest Judicial District.

Parenting Coordinator Program

Where the Mediation Program is designed to assist parties early on in their case, the Parenting Coordinator Program is designed to assist parties after the parenting order is final.

Problem Solving Courts

We currently have juvenile drug courts in six locations and adult drug courts in four locations and are in the process of establishing a juvenile drug court to serve the Valley City and Jamestown region…Recently, many states have implemented Veterans Courts to help veterans in the justice system as a result of their service to our Country.


I am pleased to report that our case management system, Odyssey, is implemented, and after April 1 of this year, 2013, all documents filed after the initiating pleadings must be filed electronically except for documents filed by self-represented litigants and prisoners; after June 1 of this year, initiating pleadings must be filed electronically in civil, non-juvenile cases.

Rural Law Clerk ProgramRural counties in North Dakota are facing a crisis in access to legal services. Currently, there are 21 counties that have 3 or fewer attorneys. In 4 of those counties, there are no attorneys at all.

Citizen Access CoordinatorEvery year, more people come to court without an attorney either by choice or because they are unable to afford one…To confront this issue, we are proposing a new Citizen Access Coordinator position that will work under the auspices of the state law library. The Citizen Access Coordinator will be able to provide procedural advice and education to self-represented litigants. This in turn will help us to keep the wheels of justice turning.

Judicial Emergencies

Most of you may not be familiar with the details of the practice of law, but you are all familiar with the flooding issues that we have been dealing with in this state…We have dealt with extended courthouse closures twice in the past fifteen years… This is why we are submitting a bill that will grant the supreme court the authority to temporarily suspend statutes of limitation in an orderly manner in the event of a disaster.

Judges and Court Staff

Courts are vital to maintaining the infrastructure of our society. Although not always noticeable, it becomes more apparent in the face of a rapidly changing economic and social landscape…

So, how did we get in this situation? I described to you earlier the unification process. When we consolidated district and county courts, we were required by legislative mandate to reduce the number of judges. That number was arbitrarily set at 42.

We have before us a plan put forth by our Judicial Planning Commission to realign our district boundaries, but re-districting alone does not solve our judge shortage nor does it begin to address our staff shortage.
I quote one of our former supreme court justices, Justice Edward Engerud, who served from 1904 to 1907, when he said in 1906, “It is my belief that the people of the state desire to preserve the integrity and efficiency of the (supreme) court.” I believe the same can be said of North Dakotans today.