The Supreme Court of North Dakota

The Constitution of the State of North Dakota, adopted in 1889, provided for the organization of the state's Supreme Court with three sitting justices. (N.D. Constitution, Sec. 89).

At the first state election in October 1889, Guy C.H. Corliss of Grand Forks, Alfred Wallin of Fargo, and Joseph M. Bartholomew of LaMoure were elected as the first Justices of the Supreme Court of North Dakota. Pursuant to the Constitution, the justices' terms were determined by lot with Justice Corliss receiving a three-year term, Justice Bartholomew a five-year term, and Justice Wallin a seven-year term. The first Justices of the Supreme Court assumed office on the first Monday in November 1889. After the first election, all justices were to assume office on the first Monday in January following their election. (For an interesting decision involving the claim by three newly elected justices that their term of office was to commence in December, see State ex rel Linde v. Robinson, 35 N.D. 417, 160 N.W. 514).

Approximately 20 years following its inception, the Supreme Court was increased from three to five members by Constitutional Amendment in 1908. (Constitutional Amendment, Article 10, Sec. 89). The first Constitution provided that terms of the members of the Supreme Court were to be six years. However, the length of the terms was increased to ten years by a Constitutional Amendment adopted in 1930. (1889 N.D. Constitution, Sec. 91).

If for any reason a vacancy occurs on the Court, the Constitution has given the Governor the authority to appoint someone to the position to serve two years before a general election to fill the vacancy. (N.D. Const. Art. VI, § 13).

The Constitution has provided compensation for the justices as prescribed by the legislature, which cannot be increased or diminished during the term for which a justice is elected. (1889 N.D. Constitution, Sec. 99). Initially, all justices received an annual salary of $4,000. (Rev. Code 1895, Sec. 379, and Rev. Code 1899, Sec. 379). The 1903 Legislature increased the justices' annual salary to $5,000, and it remained at that level from July 1, 1903, through June 30, 1917, when it was increased to $5,500. (1903 N.D.S.L., Ch. 194, Sec. 2 and 1917 N.D.S.L., Ch. 224, Sec. 1). By initiated measure on November 8, 1932, the annual salary for the justices was decreased to $5,000. (1933 N.D.S.L., P. 503). For easier reference, the chart on pages 22 and 23 includes legislative action concerning the salary for the North Dakota Supreme Court Justices from 1889 through 2000.

Even with the 1999 salary increase, in effect at this writing, which compensates the Chief Justice $86,172 and the Justices $83,807, the North Dakota Supreme Court Justices are among the lowest paid State Supreme Court Justices in the United States.

During the Supreme Court's history, 48 justices have served on the Court with the length of their service ranging from a period of four and one-half months to 39 years and one month. The range of ages of the justices when they first assumed office is quite wide with Chief Justice Guy C. H. Corliss assuming office at age 31, and Justice P. O. Sathre at age 74. Three justices have assumed office after reaching age 70; four between ages 60 and 70; fifteen between ages 50 and 60; nineteen between ages 40 and 50; and nine between ages 30 and 40. It should be noted that there have been only 48 justices. However, Justice Peter O. (P.O.) Sathre served twice, once when he was 61 and again at age 74, and Justice J. Philip Johnson also served twice, once at age 36 and again at age 53.

Twenty-five justices first attained their position on the Court by elective process, whereas twenty-five came to the bench by appointment. Justice Sathre and Justice J. Phillip Johnson each served on the Court at two different intervals. Sathre was appointed to the Court in 1937 and elected in 1950. Johnson was appointed to the Court in 1974 and again in 1992.

Eleven states and five foreign countries have been the birthplaces for North Dakota's Supreme Court Justices. Eighteen justices were born in North Dakota; five in Illinois; four in Michigan; three in New York; two each in Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; and one each in Ohio, South Dakota, and Vermont. Three justices were born in Iceland, while Scotland, Norway, India, and Canada have each been the birthplace of one justice.

A survey of the educational backgrounds of the Justices of the North Dakota Supreme Court indicates that nine of the 48 justices received their legal training in law offices or under the supervision of judges. Of these nine justices, two had bachelors of arts degrees and one had some college training but no degree. All 39 of the remaining justices had law degrees with most also having bachelor's degrees, four having master of arts degrees, and four having LL.M., master of laws, degrees.

At least 40 of the 48 justices held other public offices before, during, or after their service on the Court. Some of the capacities in which they served are United States Treasurer, Member of the United States Congress, Governor, Attorney General, Member of the State Legislature, Assistant Attorney General, State Tax Commissioner, Assistant United States Attorney, City Attorney, State's Attorney, Judge of War Crimes Trial in Germany, War Crimes Commission collecting evidence for the Nuremburg Trials, Military Judge, North Dakota District Judge, Public Service Commissioner, and Securities Commissioner.

A number of the justices have also been or were actively involved with education. Justice Guy C.H. Corliss was the organizer and first Dean of the University of North Dakota School of Law. Justice Andrew A. Bruce was also a Dean of the University of North Dakota School of Law and, in addition, taught in three other law schools. A number of justices have taught at the university law school level or in public schools and colleges.

A more complete summary and comparison of the birthplaces, education, public offices held, ages of the justices when they assumed office, and method of attaining office and years of service to the Court can be found on the history page.