Chief justice delivers N.D. State of the Judiciary

BISMARCK—Veterans courts, issues affecting the elderly and space issues in the state’s courts were among the topics highlighted in this year’s State of the Judiciary.

North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle presented the address to state lawmakers Wednesday.

The speech is an opportunity to discuss the goals and operations of the judicial branch, VandeWalle said. Here are some key points from the speech:

Racial and ethnic bias

The Task Force to Study Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts has hosted community discussions throughout the state. The group has also researched prison population, juvenile placement and minority representation on juries, in the legal profession and within the court’s workforce, he said.

The task force continues to investigate and provide the court with recommendations for improvement.

“I repeat what I have said before: the strength of the court relies on the respect of the people,” VandeWalle said. “Our state demographics are changing, and now is the time to be certain that every resident of North Dakota is assured of access to a fair and impartial justice system.”

Divorce

In 2007, the judicial branch began a mediation pilot program to address the needs of families going through divorce, VandeWalle said. The program has exceeded expectations, with 83 percent of participants reporting they were satisfied with it, he said.

The program is now in all of the state’s counties and allows rural, low-income, minority and self-represented people access to alternative dispute resolution otherwise not readily available, he said.

During the next few years, the intention is to study extending mediation services to contested probate cases and family law cases on appeal, VandeWalle said.

The Parenting Coordinator Program helps parties after the divorce and is designed for high-conflict cases where children are caught between parents.

The judge can order the parties to pay for a parenting coordinator, who has the authority to handle parenting time disputes immediately, he said.

This program has been slow to get off the ground due to the lack of familiarity with the program and its cost, VandeWalle said. The judicial branch continues to work with the program and expects to see its usage increase in the future, he said.

Veterans

There is growing interest in veterans courts due to the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with problems like post-traumatic stress syndrome, VandeWalle said.

The state’s Court Services Administration Committee is looking into the possibility of establishing a pilot veterans court if there is a need and if suitable treatment alternatives are available, he said.

Elderly issues

VandeWalle again pushed for a resolution to study elder issues.

“I am convinced that this is an area that North Dakota can no longer wait to confront,” he said.

Within 30 years, more than 30 percent of the population in many of the state’s rural counties is expected to be over age 65, he said.

A lack of public guardians, limited funding for nonprofit guardianship services and the unsupervised use of representative payees and power of attorney agreements all contribute to conditions that make it easier to take advantage of the elderly, he said.

“Elder abuse, neglect and exploitation involve complex civil and criminal issues that require a sustained and committed response by the courts and society,” VandeWalle said.

Space issues

The state Supreme Court is not the only court in the state where space is an issue, VandeWalle said. Courts in some of the state’s largest cities are squeezed for space, and some areas have aging courthouses in need of substantial repair or that may be reaching the end of their useful life, he said.

Since 1995, most court fees are required to be deposited in the state treasury rather than county treasuries. VandeWalle proposed the state pay the counties rent for court space or provide counties with one-time payments for building or substantially expanding court space.

“I am not suggesting a new courthouse in every county,” he said. “Rather, the solution must be equitable for all counties while still ensuring that the space provided is adequate in need, size and functionality.”

The final major speech of the week, the Tribal-State relationship message, is planned for Thursday afternoon.

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