The State of the Judiciary Address None of Us Heard

Another break in tradition marked the beginning of the 65th Legislative Session. Rather than the Honorable Chief Justice Gerald Vandewalle addressing a joint session of the House and Senate in front of the public, the “State of the Judiciary” was placed in a nine-page document left on legislators’ desks. When Legislative Management chose to cancel the Tribal address, they included eliminating the “State of the Judiciary.” Some think this address was thrown out as well to cover the perception that canceling the Tribal address was really just retaliation from the majority over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Your guess is as good as mine as to how many Legislators will read the document.

On Wednesday Chief Justice Vandewalle visited with the House and Senate Democratic-NPL members about the courts upon their request. I do not know if the Republican leaders requested the same from the Chief Justice. I asked for and received a copy of Vandewalle’s report, I’ve read it, and want to share it with you. You can find the full document at the bottom of this entry. It may not be sexy, but here is why you should care:

“Everybody is affected, directly or indirectly by court decisions.” – Chief Justice Gerald Vandewalle

Like the other branches of state government, the judiciary faces budget cuts. The proposed cuts will continue to cause a backlog in the court system which will mean further disruptions for businesses and citizens alike. As noted in the report, the greatest number of people in our jails are not sentenced offenders but are, “those waiting to go to court.” Expect that wait time to climb.

These backlogs also cost money. The report by Vandewalle rightly points out that without properly funding these programs at the state it increases costs on the counties. Where do you suspect the counties will raise money if needed? Likely your property taxes, which is the same tax Governor Burgum and the Legislature have decided they’re pulling back on providing relief.

The Court acknowledges cuts are inevitable. Beyond what they’ve already undertaken due to the allotment process of last year, they anticipate to layoff 36 people on June 30th (unless they find other jobs before then). The layoffs of schedulers and recorders throughout rural North Dakota will, “have a direct impact on the ability to schedule and hold hearings.”

Since 2009, there have been 33,000 more cases per year in our judicial system. Without the resources to process all these cases, the courts will begin to prioritize which cases they handle first. More petty situations will be thrown into the backlog. Remember, these backlogs come at a cost. Someone, somewhere, will be paying for it somehow.

If staff must be reduced and programs eliminated, North Dakotans should be aware of those actions. – Chief Justice Gerald Vandewalle

The Judicial Branch is an equal in government. If we value the direction and status of the Executive Branch and follow the legislative work, we sure as hell better understand the importance of the Judicial and share it with the public. The cancellation of this public address diminishes its perceived importance.

It isn’t just people with drug offenses, theft, or assault charges that utilize the court system. It is your vulnerable elderly neighbor in need of protection. It is the family down the street who is in an undesirable custody battle over their children. It is the person on the corner of town who does not have family and needs the protection of their finances and assets. It is the mineral owner trying to get what they are owed.

The Judiciary is important to the function of the state. We should have had the public address to hear it first hand, so you know how it will impact you and your neighbors. I hope this cancellation was a one-time decision. The question remains, was it a cancellation to cover up stupid vendettas or was it because legislative leadership didn’t want you to hear further how their budget decisions will impact you?


State of the Judiciary by Tyler Axness on Scribd

Tyler Axness
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