On Tuesday, January 1, 2013, Gerald W. VandeWalle marks twenty years as North Dakota's chief justice. A justice since 1978, he had been unanimously elected in November 1992 to succeed retiring Ralph Erickstad as chief justice.
On July 15, 2012, Chief Justice Gerald W. VandeWalle became the longest serving chief justice in North Dakota history. As of that date, he had served 19 years, 6 months and 11 day, surpassing the record held by former Chief Justice Erickstad (June 20, 1973-December 31, 1992). Chief Justice VandeWalle’s tenure on the Court, 34 years on August 15th, is second only to Justice A.M. Christianson’s 39-plus years.
Since 1967, the position of chief justice has been an elective position, chosen by the justices and judges in the state. Prior to 1976, the North Dakota Constitution provided a formula for who was to be designated chief justice. Now selection of the chief justice is governed by section 27-02-01 of the Century Code.
The 1889 Constitution, section 92, directed that the Supreme Court "judge having the shortest term to serve, not holding his office by election or appointment to fill a vacancy, shall be chief justice …”. The practical effect of this was that the position rotated among the justices, generally resulting in a new chief justice every two years. Under this system, A.M. Christianson was chief justice five different times, but only for about 12 years total.
In 1967, the Legislature, in conjunction with a proposed rewrite to the Judicial chapter of the Constitution, amended NDCC 27-02-01, directing that the chief justice be chosen by the Supreme Court justices and District Court judges from the members of the Supreme Court. The Legislature grappled with the idea of having the judicial council (the predecessor to today’s Judicial Conference) elect the chief justice, but then settled on a smaller subset, the justices and district court judges. The judicial council included both county and district court judges as well as five members of the state bar. The bar and legislature felt an elected chief justice, with a 5 year term, would have more authority and be a stronger supervisor than one whose term rotated every two years.
After the defeat of the proposed 1967 Constitutional amendment, the Constitution was not amended until 1975 to select the chief justice “in the manner provided by law”. The “manner provided by law” is NDCC 27-02-01. This amendment finally validated what the legislature had done in 1967! Although the Constitutional rewrite failed in the 1968 primary election, the election of the chief justice proceeded anyway. Chief Justice Obert Teigen was the first justice elevated by his judicial peers, being elected in October, 1967.
Chief Justice Teigen’s term as Justice was up at the end of 1970 and while he ran for reelection to the Court, he declined to run for reelection as chief justice. Justice Strutz was then elected chief justice and served until his death June 16, 1973. After Strutz’s death, Justice Erickstad defeated Teigen, 12-8, to be elected chief justice; Justice Knudson also garnered 1 vote. According to VandeWalle, after Strutz’s death, all four of the remaining Justices were considered nominated for Chief, unless they specifically declined the nomination. Chief Justice Erickstad was then continuously reelected and continued to serve as chief justice until his retirement from the Court at the end of 1992. Upon Chief Justice Erickstad’s retirement, Justice VandeWalle was unanimously elected chief justice. VandeWalle says he did not specifically campaign to be Chief, but no other names were put up. In fact, he has never had opposition for the position. “Not everyone wants to be chief,” he said. “It requires more than just longevity on the bench and is a balance between the two sides of the job – adjudicative and administrative.” The chief justice serves for a term of 5 years or until that justice’s term expires, whichever comes first. He may resign the office of chief justice without resigning from the office of justice of the supreme court. The chief justice is paid $3968/year above the salary of other justices.
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A somewhat quirky set of circumstances in 1966-67 caused the chief justice-ship to switch from Teigen to Strutz and back to Teigen again. When Chief Justice Thomas Burke died in March 1966, Teigen became chief justice although Strutz had the shortest term to serve.
Both Justices Teigen and Strutz were appointed to the Court in 1959 and then won elections in 1960. Strutz was appointed to the Court in 1959 following Nels Johnson’s death while in office and then elected in 1960 to serve the 8 years remaining in Johnson’s term. Teigen was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Justice Grimson’s resignation but in 1960 was elected to his own full 10 year term.
Teigen became the chief justice in 1966 because of the “shortest term to serve and not holding office by election or appointment to fill a vacancy” wording in the constitution and NDCC 27-02-01. The priority for acting as chief justice was changed by the 1967 Legislature.
The 1967 amendment to NDCC 27-02-01, effective July 1, 1967, mandating the election of the chief justice, further specified that until the supreme and district court judges met at their next ‘regular scheduled meeting’ to select the chief justice, the “judge with the shortest term to serve shall temporarily act as chief justice”. With the prohibition against serving as chief justice ‘if elected or appointed to fill a vacancy’ removed, that would be Justice Strutz, so he was elevated temporarily to chief justice.
At the next regular scheduled meeting, October 20, 1967, Teigen defeated Strutz and became the first elected chief justice. When Chief Justice Teigen retired, Strutz was unanimously selected to act as chief justice.
December 31, 2012