North Dakota Supreme Court justice calls for more judges to aid children, families
Justice Lisa Fair McEvers said high caseloads are delaying decisions that are important for children and families, and could be alleviated by hiring several more judges.
BISMARCK — A North Dakota Supreme Court justice made her case to legislators for ways to better serve children and families in the court system. Her top priority: more judges.
Justice Lisa Fair McEvers told members of the interim Judiciary Committee of the North Dakota Legislature that judges throughout the state are dealing with clogged caseloads that can delay important decisions for children and their families.
“Children’s needs change quickly,” she said in written testimony presented to the committee . “As such, very short and relatively strict deadlines, both statutory and by rules, require handling juvenile cases without delay.”
She added, however: “Our judges’ dockets are full. Adding additional judges would reduce the times women and children wait for hearings. It would also allow the judges more time on each individual case, resulting in better decisions.”
McEvers serves as chairwoman of the Juvenile Policy Board and is a member of the Children’s Cabinet, created in 2019 to “assess, guide and coordinate care for children across North Dakota branches of government and tribal nations.”
Because judges are stretched thin, “too many cases” are exceeding decision time frames, McEvers told legislators.
North Dakota now has 52 judges, about the same as the 51 in 1992, she said. Since 1992, their caseload has more than doubled, from 24,169 cases to 60,548, not including traffic court.
McEvers was asked by Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, a retired teacher and chairwoman of the Children’s Cabinet, to propose five recommendations that would enable the courts to improve the lives of children in families, and later was invited to present them to the Judiciary Committee.
In an interview with The Forum, McEvers called her recommendations a “judiciary wish list,” and said the specific number of proposed new judges and other judicial officers will come when Chief Justice Jon Jensen makes his budget request.
The request for new judges is apt to be three or four, McEvers said. “We’re not going to be asking for 20,” she said.
In her other recommendations, McEvers asked legislators to support funding for making court improvement staff permanent and full time — staff in the program, which serves varied support roles — have been classified “temporary” for 12 years because of budget constraints, she said.
“It’s obviously a position that’s needed,” she said, adding that another temporary judicial position, analyst, merits permanent, full-time status.
Similarly, McEvers is asking for expanded use of case aides, with money to hire more temporary staff in the field to provide information and to help children enroll in programs and to track compliance. “That’s another funding issue,” she said. “We’re looking for more people to work with kids, to make sure they get what they need.”
Studies and experience have shown that by helping children “upstream, at the front end,” problems can be addressed so they don’t compound and follow them into adulthood.
“They might not end up being a child that’s delinquent,” McEvers said. “Or they might not end up in the criminal justice system as adults.”
There also is a need for more financial support to provide indigent defense for juvenile offenders.
“Youth deserve competent representation,” McEvers said in her written testimony. “Represented youth are more likely to fully participate in the process. Unrepresented youth too often make admissions to delinquent acts without a real understanding of the long-term consequences of their actions, or whether they may have had a legitimate defense to the allegations,” with those consequences possibly following the children into adulthood.
McEvers also made a case for better addressing the mental health and chemical dependency treatment needs of children and families. “We don’t have enough providers in our state,” she said. “Families are waiting.”
The state should examine loosening certain certification requirements that can deter counseling professionals from out-of-state from locating in North Dakota, McEvers said.