Caseload leads to split in NW Judicial District

Few noticeable changes are likely in January when the Northwest Judicial District is split into two separate districts, court officials say.

The division will place Ward, Burke and Mountrail counties into a new Northwest Central Judicial District, while Williams, Divide and McKenzie counties will make up the Northwest Judicial District.

A North Dakota Supreme Court Judicial Planning Committee recommended the change following a two-year review of state judicial districts and administrative unit boundaries. The Supreme Court adopted the change, which takes effect Jan. 1.

“With the increasing caseload and the additional judges added, it just made sense to make that change now,” said Sally Holewa, court administrator at the Supreme Court.

The splitting of the district became feasible when the number of judges went to nine. The court added a judgeship in Minot several years ago, and an additional judge each in Williston and Watford City earlier this year.

The Northwest district already has been operating in many respects as two parts, Holewa said. The three judges in Williston and one in Watford City have been handling cases in the western half of the district, while the five judges in Minot have handled cases in the eastern half.

The biggest change for both the judges and residents may become apparent at election time. Judges will have a smaller territory in which to campaign, and candidates will face competition from candidates within a more immediate area. Meanwhile, voters will choose from candidates closer to home to hear the cases where they live.

“I think it’s going to be a very positive thing,” District Judge David Nelson in Williston said.

The three counties in the new Northwest district will benefit from having their own presiding judge. Currently, Judge William McLees in Minot serves as presiding judge for the six counties.

“A lot of the administrative duties in the court system are done by the Administrative Council. The Administrative Council is made up of presiding judges. That will basically give us a seat at that table for decisions that are made that affect the whole state,” Nelson said.

“Our caseload has increased so much, it helps to have a district presiding judge over there,” Carolyn Probst, district court administer in Minot, said of the western half of the district.

Probst said the main loss will be in the ability to transfer judges between Williston and Minot to handle cases. However, there is a process through the Supreme Court for requesting and receiving assistance from another district, she said.

Nelson added that there has been discussion about creating an easier process for transferring judges between districts within a single unit. North Dakota’s seven judicial districts fall into one of four administrative units. Each unit has consisted of two districts, with the except of the Northwest, which has been a unit in itself. The Northwest and Northwest Central districts would remain part of the same unit.

The district split would fairly evenly divide the work, based on figures from the first six months of this year provided by Probst’s office.

There were 21,276 cases in the district from January through June. This compares to 24,810 cases for the entire year in 2008. There was little change in criminal caseload, which accounts for about 19 percent of the numbers. About 60 percent of 2013 cases have been traffic offenses, up from about 55 percent of cases in 2008.

Ward County has been the busiest county with 7,478 cases, including 1,609 civil filings, 1,415 criminal cases and 4,454 traffic cases through June. That compares with 12,057 total cases in 2008.

Much of the percentage growth in caseload has been occurring in smaller counties.

McKenzie County listed 3,676 cases for the first six months of this year, well ahead of 2,938 total cases in 2008. Divide County was at 919 cases as of June, compared to 372 cases in 2008, and Burke County was running ahead with 723 cases in 2013 and 588 cases for all of 2008.

Holewa said the purpose of the review of state’s judicial districts was to ensure equity in caseload and judges among the districts. Current districts vary from three to nine judges, based on population and caseloads.

As a result of the review, the counties of Kidder, Logan and McIntosh will move from the South Central to the Southeast Judicial District on Jan. 1.