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Who's to judge?

Bob Keogh sits in a room every Thursday with people who are presumed innocent until proven guilty. They check in, are told their rights, and make their way to the courtroom where each individual is given the chance to plead and to tell their stor...

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Press Photo by Beth Wischmeyer Judge Bob Keogh hears cases Thursday in City Hall. Keogh has been a municipal judge for 26 years.
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Bob Keogh sits in a room every Thursday with people who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

They check in, are told their rights, and make their way to the courtroom where each individual is given the chance to plead and to tell their story.

Keogh has been a Dickinson municipal judge for 26 years, and he's said he's heard a lot of stories.

"It interested me," Keogh said. "I enjoy it everyday. Everyday is different, you never know what you're going to have, and you'll have people that have the same crimes, but

they are different."

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Keogh is just one of the approximate 73 municipal judges across the state who handles everyday situations, from traffic tickets to dogs-at-large.

"The city court generally speaking has jurisdiction over all the administrative traffic cases," Keogh said. "We have jurisdiction over a certain number of criminal cases too."

Keogh said municipal judges can only handle the two lowest levels, which include infractions and Class B misdemeanors.

The National Center for State Courts estimates at least 60 percent of the states have municipal courts.

To be a municipal judge other rules apply, though they vary by town population.

According to the Office of the State Court Administrator of North Dakota, if a city has more than 5,000 people, a municipal judge must have a law degree. If a city has less than 5,000, a judge is not required to have a law degree but must undergo training.

As a municipal judge, the maximum penalties that can be administered are up to 30 days in jail, and up to a $1,000 fine.

Keogh, who is also an attorney in Dickinson, can handle any case up to the Class B Misdemeanor, however judges such as Karen Saxowsky of Hebron, who does not have law training, cannot handle certain cases such as driving under the influence or cases involving juveniles.

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Saxowsky was recently appointed to the position and will begin hearing cases in January.

"We haven't had a judge here locally, we've had a guy coming down from Hazen and they just couldn't get anyone to do it," Saxowsky said. "The training was much more extensive than what I had anticipated."

Saxowsky said she's received DVD's to watch, a bench book to read, a book of Hebron's city ordinances, and has had to observe other municipal judges in order to complete her requirements.

The City of Hebron has scheduled to hold court once a month, the second Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m, Saxowsky said.

Saxowsky said she expects to hear traffic violations, city ordinance issues the most.

"I'm really excited about doing it," Saxowsky said. "This is something that's going to be totally different than anything else I've done. It's going to be fun to see what shows up."

Education for judges includes 18 hours of coursework during each three year period, said Jim Ganje, staff attorney for the Office of the State Court Administrator.

New judges are required to complete an orientation course within the first three months.

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Continuing education is required for judges.

The city of Belfield, which abolished its judge position in April, has found it easier to pass cases off to the district court, located in Dickinson.

"We thought maybe it'd be a little more impartial to go to district," said Belfield Mayor Leo Schneider. "A lot of these people come in and you don't know if they are going to do damage to your equipment if you fine them the way you should. I just thought we'd be better off to go to district."

Belfield's previous judge heard cases for about 23 years before retiring.

"We get less complaints here," Schneider said.

Roline Taylor, who has no law training, has been a judge for about 17 years, and serves the towns of Scranton, Bowman and Rhame, and says she enjoys it.

"I handle mostly traffic tickets, dogs-at-large, just anything that annoys people in the city," Taylor said.

Regular court dates are not set in Rhame or Scranton, but court is held every month in Bowman, Taylor said.

"I don't know how long I'll be doing this," Taylor said. "I'll have to decide when my term is up for one year."

Ganje said he believes in some towns in may be difficult to find a judge when one steps down.

"I think that's not an unusual occurrence, I've heard of that happening," Ganje said. "I think it's particularly true in places that are required to have a law trained person be a judge. Sometimes there's no interest. It's time consuming and it's probably not the most thankful job."

Keogh said people need to be treated fairly.

"On one hand, they have broken the law," Keogh said. "On the other, they are people too, and need to be treated as such."

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