Chief Justice VandeWalle
Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle spoke at the State Bar Association Annual Meeting, Grand Forks, North Dakota, June 14, 2012
President Venhuizen, members and guests of the North Dakota State Bar Association. Thank you for allowing me to again speak with you about the state of our North Dakota Judicial System. It is a privilege and a pleasure I do not take for granted.
The annual report of the North Dakota Judicial System for 2011 is now published and is available for viewing on the Supreme Court's website if you are interested. I do not intend to repeat the contents of that report in these remarks. I am aware that time is limited and I do not intend to overstay my welcome.
I begin with what seems to be everyone's topic of discussion — The Bakken. I thank the State Bar Association for the establishment of a task force to examine the impact of oil activity on the judicial system. We know that there have been increased caseloads throughout the Northwest and Southwest Judicial Districts and we anticipate that they will continue to increase in number as the oil boom continues and the area affected continues to spread.
One of the steps we have taken within the judicial system to measure and to understand the impact is to update the statewide workload assessments for judges and clerks of court. These assessments will give us a starting point for determining what additional resources the court may need and where they should be located. The assessments also ensure that we do not lose focus of the needs of the entire court system. While the oil impact counties are currently on the minds of the public and the media, we must not lose sight of the chronic judicial and staff shortages that exist and continue to grow in the South Central and East Central districts.
The forthcoming legislative session promises to be interesting as well as challenging. While our legislative proposals are not yet finalized, this Association has played a persuasive and significant role in the legislative process and I will again seek your counsel, your aid and your assistance in advancing our program.
We recently released the latest evaluation of our family law mediation program. This was the first opportunity we had to look at two areas where we had hoped to see some impact: the time it takes to reach disposition and the number of times the case comes back to court post-disposition. The evaluation found that the time was shortened by an average number of days that ranged from 80 days in the Northeast Central Judicial District to 150 days in the Northwest Judicial District. The percentage of cases that were re-opened in the South Central Judicial District decreased by 91% and in the Northeast Central Judicial District by 71%. The litigant satisfaction rate was 87%. We are pleased the program is being widely used and that it is having such positive results.
We are currently in the process of considering a proposed rule establishing the Appellate Mediation Program. This program would offer litigants involved in family and probate cases the opportunity to participate in mediation at no charge to them.
Commission to Study Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts:
Some of you are members of the court's Commission to Study Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts. Many of you have taken the time to complete the Commission's surveys and offered your input in other ways. The Commission will soon release its final report. One of the recommendations that will be included in that report is the need for court and bar sponsored programs to make courts more accessible to citizens from all cultures and the development of community outreach initiatives. I hope that when we move forward with these recommendations we will find a willing and eager partner in SBAND. While bias cannot be tolerated in any governmental branch or institution, it is particularly harmful in the courts, to which the public looks, above all, for fairness and neutrality.
This spring marks the 20th year since Judge Jahnke was shot while presiding over family court. I wish I could say that we had found a way to ensure something like this does not happen again in North Dakota. Sadly, that is not the case. Too often, especially in our rural communities, security is inadequate. We recognize county resources are limited and that it is hard to get anyone too excited about security when no one has been injured in recent years. However, just two years ago, we had an incident in Adams County where a defendant brought a gun into the courtroom. Thanks to the quick action of Jonathan Byers and a gun that misfired, no one was hurt. But the incident was a stark reminder that we can never become complacent about security.
We are currently circulating a proposed amendment to Administrative Order 16 that would require all pleadings to be filed using the court's e-filing system, except for those used to initiate a case. We recognize this has a direct impact on how you do business with the courts and we are interested in hearing from you. E-filing has been available statewide for more than a year and the practicing bar's usage of it is slower than we expected. At the same time, we have seen a tremendously positive response to the bar's online access to court documents. The two parts of the system work hand-in-hand. When you use the e-filing system, the documents are clearer and the clerks are able to process them faster, which in turn makes them available more quickly to the judge and the litigants.
The issue of how to provide adequate service to self-represented litigants is a perennial question. We have recently referred a proposal to the Court Services Administration committee to consider instituting a support center for self-represented litigants that would provide assistance in completing forms. I do not know what the final recommendation from the committee will be, but the number of people choosing to forego using attorneys has been and will continue to grow.
Reduced funding for Civil Legal Services:
In light of North Dakota's booming economy and low unemployment rate, it may seem odd to talk about people in need. But, despite our affluence, there are people in our state who are without adequate resources and in need of legal services. The media reports indicate that many of the people drawn to North Dakota by the promise of jobs are destitute when they arrive. Some of them have needs with are greater that we might expect.
I raise this because Congress is again proposing further cuts to the Legal Services Corporation. More than half of the funding for Legal Services of North Dakota comes from funds appropriated to the Legal Services Corporation. Because of reduced federal funding last year, they were forced to lay off one full-time staff attorney and discontinue all 5 of their temporary law clerk positions. For every staff attorney position that Legal Services of North Dakota loses, approximately 700 North Dakotans will lose the opportunity to get the help they need to resolve their legal issue.
I thank all of you who have performed pro bono or reduced fee services or contributed money to provide legal services to the poor in the past year and I urge everyone to consider what they can do to help where they can. As our profession prospers from the economic upswing in North Dakota, we have a greater responsibility to contribute our money, if not our time, to assure access to the justice system in North Dakota.
Judicial Planning Commission and re-districting:
At the request of the Administrative Council, I asked the Judicial Planning Commission to consider the current judicial district boundaries and to make recommendations related to re-districting. The Commission has been considering three different proposals but has not yet decided which, if any, of the proposals it might recommend, or whether it will recommend any changes to district boundaries. I mention this because I am aware that in some areas of the state, city and county commissions and local bar associations have been approached about the various proposals. This may have given some people the idea that a decision has already been made. That is not the case. I assure you that if we reach the point where the Commission has a recommendation the Court looks favorably upon, we will ask for public comment before a decision is made.
Guardianship and Elder Issues:
For the last two legislative sessions, I have been urging a study of guardianship and other issues affecting the elderly. Last session, the legislators adopted our study proposal and hired a consultant to examine North Dakota's guardianship and public administrator system. The consultant released his final report at the end of May. He has presented recommendations that would strengthen the due process rights of proposed wards, raise the standard for guardianship, and establish an independent state agency to deliver public administrator services. It remains to be seen what the Human Services Committee will recommend and what might ultimately become law.
I could speak at length about proposals made, adopted and discarded by the 20/20 Commission concerning changes in the ABA model rules of professional conduct and admission to practice as a result of changes in technology and the globalization of the practice of law. I do not intend to do so because tomorrow morning two knowledgeable people will discuss that topic at the Vogel Lecture on Professionalism and Legal Ethics. I urge you to attend, to hear about the issues, the proposals and the pros and cons of those proposals.
Contested Elections and the Need for Civil Discourse:
The critical importance of an independent judiciary in protecting and promoting democracy cannot be overstated. If the people cannot turn to the courts with confidence that the judge will fairly and impartially apply the law, then the courts will have become meaningless. Huge sums of money permeate some judicial elections. In other States relations among justices have deteriorated to a caustic level that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. I am proud of the civility with which North Dakota elections have always been conducted. It is yet another reason to be thankful and proud of North Dakota. But, if they are to stay that way, it is up to us, as a State and as a profession, to hold ourselves to a high standard of conduct.
As I have in the past, I again thank the North Dakota State Bar Association officers, members and staff for your interest, your cooperation and your support in preserving and improving the fair and impartial judicial system our citizens deserve. I am grateful for your advocacy on behalf of the judicial system. I am grateful I live in North Dakota.
June 18, 2012