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District court judges lobby for more help

North Dakota's Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 in support of three additional district court judgeships in North Dakota.

BISMARCK -- North Dakota's judicial district court judges have been trying to handle an unprecedented number of court cases over the past two years and are pleading their own case to lawmakers for help.

North Dakota's State Court Administrator, Sally Holewa, told lawmakers Monday the state's population has risen by 47,000 people since 2009, the last time a new judicial district court judgeship was created. Since then, the judicial system has seen the number of case files increase by 31,000 and the extra burden has been placed on the judges.

Holewa joined Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle and four judges in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to push for Senate Bill 2075, asking lawmakers for $1.69 million for two more judgeships and two staff members in northwest North Dakota, and one judge and staff member in Fargo, with hopes of decreasing the large burden placed on the current system.

"These judges are swamped," Holewa said.

District courts saw an 11.3 percent increase from 2011 to 2012, according to Holewa. In 2011, 167,165 cases were filed statewide compared to the 185,982 cases in 2012.

The request for three judges is based off a weighted caseload study that looks at the number of cases and types of cases filed as well as the length each case takes.

She said the East Central District received a new judgeship in 2000, since then, the district has seen a 17 percent increase in case filings.

A large population of immigrants is settling in the state. Since 2000, 47,000 people have moved to the state, Holewa said, with 300 new refugees settling in Cass County every year.

Last year, judges handled 155 hearings involving interpreters in 17 languages, which takes longer to hear compared to a case where no interpreter is needed.

Committee member Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, said many new residents may not fully understand local laws and ordinances.

"Something that is fine in their own culture may not be legal here, or may not be the same practice as they are use to," she said.

Northwest Judicial District Judge William Mclees, chambered in Minot, said five judges have been handling the cases well in that area, with the help of a retired judge that has comes in for one week every month, but staff members are working irregular hours, opening the courthouse early and staying later to handle the workload.

The Northwest District saw case filing jump from 33,535 to 42,315 between 2011 and 2012.

"About 60 people in one day, that doesn't leave with much time to spend with each individual," McIees said.

Northwest District Judicial Court Judge David Nelson, said the time crunch "isn't fair to the people who are coming to me with disputes. My job is to decide things and I need to give them the time."

He said the court system is so clogged,many who haven't been convicted of a crime yet sit in jail for awhile because they can't afford bail.

"We've been kicking them out on Fridays, we need room for violent people," he said.

Two weeks ago, 24 people sat in the Minot jail system with another 30 to 35 people waiting for a hearing that day.

Nelson told the committee his schedule is so busy he had to wait three months to schedule a half-hour dentist appointment.

His schedule has required him to go in earlier, work longer days and on the weekends. He said the stressful environment is taking its toll on him.

"I've apologized to the staff more times in the last six months than the last 19 years for snapping at somebody for something that really wasn't anybody's fault," he said. "It gets to you, it's a problem."

Sen. Stanley Lyson, R-Williston, said the presentation given during the committee hearing Monday morning showed how much the chief justice and other district judges want the additional help, but is not sure three judges may be enough.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they came back to ask for more help in two years," he said.