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N.D. district courts request more staff for next biennium

BISMARCK -- District courts from around North Dakota have asked a committee of the state Supreme Court for more full time staff for the 2019-21 biennium.

Employees are a major element of the state’s court system, which allocates 75 percent of its budget for salaries and wages. State court administrator Sally Holewa said the Administrative Council, which met Friday, June 8, will recommend to the North Dakota Supreme Court that it budget the 10 requested positions for several counties and judicial districts around the state.

In the 2017 legislative session, the court system cut about 10 percent of its staff due to budget reductions. Holewa said that percentage amounted to 35.5 employees, plus seven temporary or contract employees, cut from an already short-staffed system.

“These are actual employees. These were not vacancies,” Holewa said Monday. “These were jobs that were being done full time by people who had to be laid off, and so it’s a different situation when you’re cutting a vacancy that’s existed for a long time and nobody’s been doing the work.”

Burleigh, Cass, Grand Forks, Morton and Ward counties have each requested one deputy clerk of court. The East Central, Northwest, South Central and Southeast judicial districts have each requested one law clerk. The North Central Judicial District asked for one court recorder.

The Administrative Council won't give its final recommendation on the district court budget until it meets in September, according to Holewa. The state Supreme Court will finalize the full budget and submit an informational copy to the Office of Management and Budget by Nov. 15.

Trial court administrator Donna Wunderlich, of the South Central and Southwest judicial districts, said law clerks aid in research for judges, allowing them more courtroom time. The duties of court staff eliminated last year had to be restructured or shifted to remaining staff, she said.

“We continue to look for efficiencies in all of our processes,” she said.

Trial court administrator Carolyn Probst, of the North Central and Northwest judicial districts, said “it would be irresponsible” to not keep court officials and legislators aware of their needs.

The Northwest Judicial District, comprised of Divide, McKenzie and Williams counties, has requested staff for every biennium during the Bakken oil boom and downturn, she said. Contrary to common belief, court filings did not decrease significantly during the oil downturn, she added.

The North Central Judicial District, in the Minot area, cut five positions last year, including two juvenile staff and a law clerk, Probst added.

“For a small district, it’s got significant impact,” she said. “We’re all feeling the pain.”

A judicial shortage around the state is also being experienced. Based on a weighted caseload study, the South Central Judicial District, which includes Burleigh and Morton counties, needs three more judges. The North Central Judicial District has needed two more judges for years, according to Probst.

Holewa said the Administrative Council did not discuss district judgeships. Only the Legislature can add judgeships. The North Dakota Supreme Court has not yet met to discuss budgeting for 2019-21.

“It is a time of uncertainty,” Holewa said. “We do recognize that, but we also realize that we have to have a certain number of actual human beings to do some work.”