Structure of the Court System
The original constitution of the state of North Dakota created a judicial system consisting of the Supreme Court, district courts, county courts, justice of the peace courts, and such municipal courts as provided by the law. This judicial structure remained intact until 1959 when the Legislative Assembly abolished the justice of peace courts in the state. The adoption of a new judicial article to the state constitution in 1976 significantly modified the constitutional structure of the judicial system. The new judicial article vested the judicial powers of the state in a unified judicial system consisting of a Supreme Court, district courts, and such other courts as provided by law. Thus, under the new judicial article, only the Supreme Court and the district courts retained their status as constitutional courts. All other courts in the state are statutory courts.
In 1981 the Legislative Assembly further altered the structure of the judicial system by enacting legislation that replaced the multi-level county court structure with a uniform system of county courts throughout the state. This new county court structure became effective on January 1, 1983. With the county court system in place, the judicial system of the state consisted of the Supreme Court, district courts, county courts, and municipal courts.
This changed once again as 1991 House Bill 1517 began implementation on July 1, 1991, with a completion date of January 1, 2001. Briefly stated, this legislation abolished county courts on January 1, 1995, with the jurisdictional workload transferring to an expanded number of district judges. The 1991 total of 26 county judges and 27 district court judges has been reduced to 43 district court judges sitting as of the end of 1998. This number is scheduled to be reduced to a total of 42 district court judges by January 1, 2001.
The 1981 Legislative Assembly clarified the administrative responsibilities of the Supreme Court by designating the chief justice as the administrative head of the judicial system and by granting the chief justice the authority to assign judges for temporary duty in any non-federal court in the state. It also acknowledged the Supreme Court's rulemaking authority in such areas as court procedure and attorney supervision.
Selection and Removal of Judges
All judges in North Dakota are elected in nonpartisan elections. Justices of the Supreme Court are elected for ten-year terms; district court judges for six-year terms; and municipal court judges for four-year terms.
Vacancies in the Supreme Court and the district courts can be filled either by a special election called by the governor or by gubernatorial appointment. However, before a vacancy can be filled by gubernatorial appointment, the Judicial Nominating Committee must first submit a list of nominees to the governor from which the governor makes an appointment. Whether the vacancy is filled by a special election or by appointment, the person filling the judicial vacancy serves for a minimum of two years and then until the next general election. The person elected to the office at the general election serves for the remainder of the unexpired term.
If a vacancy occurs in a municipal court, it is filled by the executive officer of the municipality with the consent of the governing body of the municipality.
Under the North Dakota Constitution only Supreme Court justices and district court judges can be removed from office by impeachment. All judges, however, are subject to removal, censure, suspension, retirement or other disciplinary action for misconduct by the Supreme Court upon the recommendation of the Judicial Conduct Commission. Other methods for the retirement, removal and discipline of judges can be established by the Legislative Assembly.