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North Dakota chief justice wants 4 new judgeships to keep pace with oil boom-related workload

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BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle appealed Wednesday to state lawmakers to add four new judgeships and additional court employees to keep pace with increased workloads caused by the state's booming oil economy.

"The lack of resources, particularly in the criminal arena, has led to a system of 'conveyor-belt justice' where hearings are too often run by script and concluded in less than five minutes," VandeWalle said in his State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the North Dakota House and Senate.

"The rule of law of law depends on courts being available in a timely manner," he said.

The 81-year-old is the longest-serving chief justice in state history and longest-tenured sitting state chief justice in the nation. VandeWalle was re-elected to his fourth 10-year term on the state's Supreme Court in November. He has been a justice since 1978 and became chief justice in 1993.

Following his address Wednesday, VandeWalle received the state's highest honor — the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award — from Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

"There is not a person in this chamber who isn't convinced that our Chief Justice is deserving of this award, except perhaps Jerry himself. Humility is one of his finest qualities," Dalrymple said. "Throughout his career, Justice VandeWalle has made important contributions to the North Dakota Supreme Court and the state court system."

PHOTO: North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, right, presents State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle with the bust of Theodore Roosevelt during a presentation of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state's highest honor, during a joint session of the Legislature, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Bismarck, N.D. The chief justice is the 41st recipient of the award. (AP Photo/The Bismarck Tribune, Tom Stromme)
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, right, presents State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle with the bust of Theodore Roosevelt during a presentation of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state's highest honor, during a joint session of the Legislature, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Bismarck, N.D. The chief justice is the 41st recipient of the award. (AP Photo/The Bismarck Tribune, Tom Stromme)

VandeWalle recommended the new judgeships in the epicenter of the oil boom in northwestern North Dakota, and also in Burleigh and Morton counties in the central part of the state, which are absorbing excess cases from the oil patch.

North Dakota has 47 trial judges, including three that were added two years ago at VandeWalle's request.

The court system is asking lawmakers to approve a $120 million budget for the next two years, a nearly 20 percent increase over current spending levels. Lawmakers will consider the request over the course of the Legislative session, which is limited by state Constitution to 80 days.

Don Wolf, the high court's director of finance, said the cost of each judgeship requested by VandeWalle is estimated at about $434,000 per two-year budget cycle.

"The lack of judges and court staff affects entire communities," VandeWalle said. "Those charged with crimes sit in jail longer while they wait their day in court and a judgment of guilt or innocence. This is disruptive to their own lives and those of their families."

VandeWalle also said it adds "thousands of dollars in incarceration costs."

The chief justice said the need for judges will be even bigger if North Dakota's robust economy takes a turn.

"Experience has shown there is even greater demand on the courts when businesses fail, crime increases and the stresses on families result in more family law cases," he said.

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