IV. Preparing for the Twenty-first Century
. . .
B. Trial Court Consolidation
Further implementing the unified system, the 1991 legislature abolished county courts, merged county and district judgeships into a single trial court, and sought greater efficiency.(553) The measure directed the gradual reduction of trial court-judgeships to begin in 1995, decreasing from fifty-three judges in 1991 to forty-two by January 1, 2001.(554)
In December 1997, at the Court's request, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), after study of weighted caseloads, reported that measuring the then-existing number of forty-six trial judgeships and 6.8 referees (including part-timers) against the caseload indicated a quantitative surplus of 3.84 judicial bodies. There are nagging worries, however, about the extent of the judicial reductions dictated by the legislature (although never recommended by the Supreme Court) because the NCSC study did not "quantify" significant intangibles and varying factors, like accidental deaths or severe disabilities, long absences or vacancies, and caseload surges in particular localities.(555)
With helpful guidance from Justice William Neumann, a former trial judge, the Supreme Court has carried out the orderly reduction of the number of judgeships through gradual attrition from deaths, resignations, and decisions not to seek reelection. Only a single judgeship remains to be vacated before the end of 2000 to reach the dictated efficiency of forty-two trial court judges.(556)
Chief Justice VandeWalle explained the effect of unifying the court system to the 1999 legislature: "[T]oday we have only one level of trial courts instead of the three that previously existed. The result was a change from a system of literally hundreds of part-time and full-time judges, to a point where, by [century's] end, we will have  full-time law trained trial judges."(557) This unified system has streamlined administration while making the system responsive to another perceived public need, that of reducing governmental expenditures for the justice system.(558)
But without any significant decrease in workloads in sight, most trial courts are already clearly overloaded. It remains to be seen whether this dictated "efficiency" is worth the associated costs to the public from justice delayed.
553. See 1991 N.D. Laws., ch. 326, at 974-1044; see also N.D. Cent. Code § 27-05-02.1.
554. See 1991 N.D. Laws ch. 326, § 86, at 1006-07; 1993 N.D. Laws ch. 316, § 1, at 1108-10; 1993 N.D. Laws ch. 317, § 1, at 111-12.
555. See Matter of Judicial Vacancy, 1998 ND 25, 574 N.W.2d 199, 200-03 (Meschke, J. & Maring J., dissenting).
556. In September 1999, the Court conducted consultations with trial judges and lawyers of each of five judicial districts with judgeships up for election in 2000 to aid in deciding which judgeship to eliminate. See Notice of Consultation (N.D. Sup. Ct. July 28, 1999) (Sup. Ct. No. 990224) (on file with North Dakota Supreme Court). On December 2, 1999, the Court issued its Order abolishing judgeship number five in the Southwest Judicial District with chambers in Bowman, effective at the end of 2000. See 1999 ND 226, 603 N.W.2d 57,
557. Chief Justice VandeWalle's State of the Judiciary Address, State of North Dakota, Journal of the House 58 (56th Leg. 1999).
558. A prior attempt to complete unification by integrating the clerks of court into the unified system was ineffective. See N.D. Cent. Code § 11-17-11 (1995) (repealed 1999) (giving counties the option to "transfer responsibility for funding for the clerk of district court to the state"). But, the 1999 legislature authorized integration while assuring continued court services in every county, beginning April 1, 2001. See 1999 N.D. Laws ch. 278, at 1172-1210. A movement by clerks from some of the smaller counties to refer that measure to a popular vote failed to garner enough petition signatures to file with the Secretary of State. See News from the North Dakota Supreme Court </court/News/M7_1999.htm>.
The primary duty of clerks of court is to keep judicial records orderly and securely. These largely clerical positions have little or no policy responsibilities anymore, if they ever did. The positions should not be elective, but auxiliary to the judicial system.