Paul Jacobson sits in new Williston judgeship


Staff Writer


WILLISTON Williston is a city in transition, not only in its physical nature and population but also in its judicial caseload.

The Northwest Judicial District, which currently spans the six most northwestern North Dakota counties, was under such a large caseload that two new seats were opened, as well as a third in Fargo.

Paul W. Jacobson was selected to take the newly formed seat in Williston, joining Judges David W. Nelson and Joshua R. Rustad at the end of July.

“It’s bigger, busier, and looks like it’s going to keep going that way,” Jacobson said, observing how much his hometown of Williston had changed since growing up there through most of high-school.

When Northwest Bell transferred his father from manager of the Williston telephone office to the Fargo office, it was the first he had seen of a larger city.

“The immediate thing I could think of is the department store in Fargo had an escalator, and as a kid I hadn’t seen that and I said, ‘Yep, we’re in the big city now,'” he said of the move.

Williston had largely been stagnant from his childhood there to when he came back from the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps to private practice there after being admitted to the state bar in 1979.

The population hovered in the 11,000 range until an upward tick of about 2,000 people in the 1980 census to reflect the smaller, earlier oil boom. It stayed in the 13,000s until the most recent Bakken finds, jumping again by about 2,000 in the 2010 census, and then growing an estimated 25 percent more by the end of 2012.

“It’s been pretty constant until this boom and now things are different here,” Jacobson said. “The activity in the court has grown a lot in the last two years.”

He practiced in Williston with the firm Bjella, Neff, Rathert, Wahl and Eiken, P.C. for about 13 years before becoming disciplinary council for the North Dakota Supreme Court and Judicial Conduct Commission for “just two months short of 20 years.”

As disciplinary council, he would investigate and try ethics cases involving lawyers and judges, sometimes arguing to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

But he always kept his home in Williston.

“I’d go down to Bismarck and work the week and then come back home,” he said of maintaining a small apartment in Bismarck. “I don’t have to do that anymore so I save a lot of miles on my vehicle.”

So, he’ll get to have more time with his wife, Toni, with whom he raised seven children together; four from him, two from her and one between the two of them.

But the work hasn’t become commonplace, yet.

“It’s a transition in both the building and what I’m doing for my job,” he said of the Williams County Courthouse, which is currently undergoing renovations to the third floor, where the courtrooms and judge’s chambers are located.

“Those are about 99.9 percent done,” Jacobson said of the chambers. “I’m still waiting to move into my permanent quarters.”

He doesn’t have any major cases assigned to him yet, but is learning and will soon move into a full caseload.

“What I did do was follow and observe our two judges here … on the cases they did have and of course there is a wide variety of cases to be heard.”

And he should be ready.

As a private attorney in Williston he did mainly litigation, but said that in Williston at the time there would be “a little bit of everything,” from criminal cases to oil and gas disputes that he had to argue. Add that to a nearly 38-year legal career and he’s seen it all.

“To get a bottom line answer on that we would have to ask the governor,” he said of his experience helping him to get his spot, “but I think that helped.”

Jacobson’s formal investiture ceremony, to be attended by Chief Justice Vandewalle and maybe even the governor, schedule allowing, will take place on Oct. 25.