Sitting in Judge Gerald Rustad's courtroom in any given session, you're as likely to hear him declare a dispute between two adults "a joke" as you are to see him dismiss a fishing license violation with the admonition, "Go and sin no more."
From the outlandish to the serious, Rustad, 66, has just about seen and heard it all while seated on the bench of the Northwest Judicial District.
But after 18 years, he presided over his last session at the Divide County Courthouse earlier this month.
In all those years, his faith in justice has never been shaken.
"It you have good attorneys on both sides that aren't afraid to try the case but also not afraid to settle the case, the system works," he said, seated in his chambers during a break in the twice-monthly parade of cases, on Dec. 15.
"Some cases shouldn't be settled. Some cases shouldn't be tried."
Rustad grew up on a farm south of Zahl and attended school in Grenora before graduating from UNDs School of Law in 1969.
He worked in private practice and also served as a states attorney and city attorney in Williston before running for the judgeship in 1992.
No matter who came before his court, Rustad never lost sight of a basic principle—one that may surprise the public given all of the depravity he's heard chronicled.
"Even criminal defendants are people, and in many cases, good people," Rustad said.
It's not his place to judge the person, but to determine how best to "protect society from what people do."
He's never given much consideration to his own security, he said, and he's never been afraid of any defendant who stood before him.
He doesn't dwell on cases he hears, and frequently, forgets the names of the people involved as soon as he's done hearing a case.
"You can't pick sides and you have to be fair. Even people who offend you are entitled to some fairness," he said.
But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll get off without some kind of admonishment.
"I suspect that when i first started I wasn't as comfortable doing that, but after 18 years you allow yourself some leeway," he said, to make the pronouncements everyone in court probably wishes they could make to particularly dastardly or foolhardy defendants.
"I do that from time to time, if I think it needs to be said."
There's always a chance, however slight, it may do some good.
By the same token, Rustad is not immune to showing some sympathy, even when the law requires him to rule differently than human compassion might dictate.
If getting to spout off occasionally is one of the perks of a district judgeship, having to isolate oneself from one's friends is one of the drawbacks.
"It is a lonely job," he said. "Where you did have friends who were attorneys, you can't maintain very close friendships."
To do so would be to risk having to remove oneself from too many court proceedings.
Rustad expects his successor, who just happens to be his son, Josh, will be a little "less mouthy" from the bench than his father has been.
The younger Rustad acknowledges the uniqueness of the situation—following in his father's footsteps as a district court judge, "just because of the job he's done over the last 18 years. I have some big shoes to fill."
"I'm very excited to assume the position," Josh added, pointing to the mentoring and guidance he has received from his dad as a big benefit.
The new judge's dad declares, "He's smarter than I am. He's a quicker study."
The elder Rustad looks forward in the new year to traveling with his wife, Dawn, to visit their other children—Jennifer, Jared and Jamie—who live out-of-state and have children of their own whom their grandfather is looking forward to getting to know better.
From the Dec. 29, 2011, Divide County Journal—Reprinted by permission.
Jan. 6, 2011