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Jack McDonald, the State Bar Association of North Dakota Justice System Energy Impact Task Force chairman, asks for comment from local attorneys, judges, law enforcement and court officials Tuesday at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson.

Southwest Judicial District 'overwhelmed'

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Witnesses shared a common theme at the Justices System Energy Impact Task Force meeting Tuesday at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson: The court system is overstressed and it is only going to get worse.

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"What we are hearing is a system that is overwhelmed in all aspects," Task Force Chairman Jack McDonald said. "What we are trying to do now is get some facts and figures so that the Legislature and the people making budget decisions ... can cope."

The Southwest Judicial District caseload increased 58 percent from 2006 to 2011, court administrator Donna Wunderlich said. Felony cases rose 85 percent in the same time period.

Increased oil production in western North Dakota has brought challenges to all business sectors, including the courts, Dickinson attorney Sandra Kuntz said.

"They need to find staff to help us as members of the private bar," she said. "We are having to compete with McDonald's, who pays $15 an hour and offers a signing bonus."

The State Bar Association of North Dakota has heard complaints about delayed court dates, time to review cases, service availability, and a lack of staff, judges and lawyers, task force member and State Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, said, adding the stories seemed to be on par with the testimony from attorneys, law enforcement and court officials at the meeting.

"There's such an increase in crime and we need a way to deal with it," she said.

SBAND's task force listened to almost two hours of testimony.

The Stark County Clerk of Court office also is short staffed by 23 percent, according to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

Administrators expect to process 20,100 cases in the southwest district this year, but that number could prove to be estimation, District Judge William Herauf said.

"These are not the typical cases we are used to seeing, the easy felonies," he said. "These are the very complicated felonies. You are dealing with things across state lines with state labs with many more players involved, so those do take more time."

The state needs to be proactive instead of reactive to the situation, Meyer said. The area needs more judges, lawyers and court officials, she added.

"(The task force) is going to hear the same things in Williston. They're going to hear the same things in Minot," she said.

The task force will collect more information Tuesday at the Williams County Courthouse in Williston and June 27 at the Ward County Courthouse in Minot. Both meetings are 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. CDT.

SBAND also will accept written testimony until July 1 via email at bill@sband.org or State Bar Association of North Dakota, P.O. Box 2136, Bismarck, ND 58502-2136.

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