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District 13 legislative report: The future of North Dakota courts being addressed by judicial committee

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North Dakota has a long, proud history of effective, efficient jurisprudence, "swift justice," one might call it.

In many states, clogged court dockets, inefficient use of resources, and the litigiousness of society combine to slow access to the court system. That's not been the case here, where our citizens have routinely enjoyed ready access to nearby courts, whether to try criminal cases or to redress grievances in civil matters.

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In the 1990s, North Dakota undertook court unification. It did away with the traditional county courts and meant that all courts in the state, with the exception of municipal courts (where items such as traffic fines, parking tickets, etc. are dealt with) and small claims courts, are District Courts. That change meant that county courthouses now host state - not county - courtrooms and judges' chambers. The costs for operating the courts also migrated to the state.

Questions arise on the future of the court system, as aging facilities and shifting population concentration create new challenges and, perhaps, new opportunities. County governments are clamoring for the state to pick up even more of the cost, such as renting or paying for maintenance and utilities for courtrooms and chambers. They may have a point. It must be balanced, of course, against the importance to counties of the preservation of and access to courts in every county.

These are just a few of the complex issues the Judicial Planning Committee is grappling with. Appointed to serve on it by the North Dakota Supreme Court, this is one of those additional duties I believe good legislators should perform, even though we're neither required nor paid to do so. Chairing the Constitutional Revision Committee and having vice chaired the Judiciary Committee and served on it for many years, I understand the importance of this "third branch" of government and share interest in how it will work in the future.

One of the great benefits of a committee like this is interaction among judges, legislators (Rep. Delmore from Grand Forks also serves on the committee) and others. This is critical to understanding how our government works and how to make it better (both more effective and more efficient).

While chairing the Council of State Governments, I was pleased to convene the first National Interbranch Summit of the States, involving members of all three branches of state government, from throughout the nation. It was held nearly two years ago in Bismarck and drew participation from as far away as Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and South Carolina.

The interaction among officials from three branches builds understanding, cooperation, and collaboration. Prior to the summit, former Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert (now retired) and I co-founded and, for years, co-chaired the Interbranch Working Group. It is an effort, sponsored by CSG, to continue this type of interaction.

North Dakota can be proud of its courts. They work well for our citizens and they understand that it is their role to apply the law, not to make it. We must work together to preserve this institution for future generations.

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