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Grand Forks judge Jensen becomes newest state Supreme Court Justice

Judge Jon Jensen is moving from District Judge in Grand Forks to the North Dakota Supreme Court. Joshua Komer/Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS—In Grand Forks, Judge Jon Jensen was an easy man to find.

At 5 a.m. he'd be out on a trail or county roads for a run, though in recent months he's switched to a road bike. The exercise always lasts at least an hour.

By 6:30 a.m., Jensen, a 52-year-old Grand Forks area native, would walk into Darcy's Cafe on North Washington Street, where the other regulars would hand him the cafe's copy of the newspaper. He'd eat two poached eggs and a big blueberry pancake.

One time, Darcy's owner Michelle Hajicek recalls, he opted for a big bowl of oatmeal instead, but he came back the next day and declared it hadn't filled him up properly. It's the only time she recalls him breaking from his routine.

Jensen begins a new routine Tuesday in Bismarck, where he will be sworn in as a North Dakota Supreme Court justice, taking over for the retired Justice Carol Kapsner for the remaining two years of her term. He can run for a new 10-year term in 2020.

The transition to the high court is the latest in a list of professional accomplishments for Jensen, who was appointed to the bench in the Northeast Central Judicial District by Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2013.

Jensen is an Eagle Scout who became a certified public accountant and then became a lawyer.

In a 20-year stint as a partner with Pearson Christensen Law Firm in Grand Forks he became a sought after tax lawyer. He and his wife, Linda Bata, opened their own law practice in 2012. The next year, he said he applied for an open judgeship in Grand Forks at her urging.

Sitting in his tidy office at the Grand Forks County Courthouse last month, Jensen said he was proud of what he and the court staff had accomplished in the last four years, when the Northeast Central District improved its efficiency despite budget cuts that left the court with fewer staffers and judicial officers.

In the courtroom, Jensen said there always seemed to be something interesting about each case before him, always something about the way a lawyer was making an argument he felt worth examining. He likes the process of legal arguments and examining the legal merit of each stance.

"I found I was really enjoying when I'd go back to the office and write opinions," Jensen told the Herald. "It's almost like a judicial audit."

He said he learned how to write by clerking for former North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Ralph Erickstad in 1990, when he was fresh out of law school. Now he gets a chance to write his own opinions, which can help set legal precedent in the state.

Streamlining the system

When Jensen was appointed to the bench in 2013, the Northeast Central District had seven judicial officers. Turnover in the court was heavy at the time due to retirements, and by 2015, Jensen was the presiding judge. Budget cuts saw the district lose both its judicial referees, giving it just five judicial officers.

Suddenly finding himself in charge, Jensen threw out the schedule the court had worked on for years and implemented a five-week judge rotation with the help of the now retired Judge Debbie Kleven. The move was met with initial resistance from the State Bar Association, he recalls.

"Nobody likes change," he said.

But the new system helped the court improve efficiency, according to trial court administrator Scott Johnson.

"He was a critical element in that process," Johnson said.

Johnson said Jensen was clear in communicating the changes to all the stakeholders in the court, and worked closely with clerk and administration staffs to implement changes.

"It was truly a team effort to get it done," Johnson said.

'Not a halfway guy'

Nick Flom first met Jensen early on a Saturday morning in June 2011 when they both showed up to a group run for the Red River Runners.

"Only two guys showed up, me and Jon," he recalls.

The next week, Flom came back. Jensen was, once again, the only other one there. A friendship began.

Eventually the two would meet each morning at 5 a.m. for 8-mile runs. Flom, now the director of Northern Plains UAS Test Site, introduced Jensen to marathon running, which he took to immediately.

He ran his best time, 3 hours, 1 minute, at the Fargo Marathon. Jensen said his times have qualified for the Boston Marathon every race he's run, though he's never ran in the renowned race.

"He's not a halfway guy," Flom said.

Jensen became highly involved with the Red River Runners, and eventually began helping the group organize and grow.

"He was supportive, not only to runners but to what the group as a whole wanted to accomplish in the community," Red River Runners director Stacy Kusler said.

Flom eventually went to work for Jensen for a year when Jensen and his wife had their own practice. He said Jensen's dedication to his work and responding to clients in a timely fashion instantly stood out, and directly translated into his role as a judge.

"Part of what he's doing is practicing customer service, and he took that part very seriously," Flom said.

Jensen began eating breakfast at Darcy's six days a week about two-and-half years ago, as Hajicek recalls. He usually eats alone, occasionally joined by Flom. On Saturdays, he brings his mom, she said.

"It was really nice to see his face when I'd come in every morning," Hajicek said.

Jensen gave Hajicek a card before leaving town, thanking her for for the breakfasts and conversations over the years and for inspiring him to add weightlifting to his fitness regimen.

Monday at Darcy's Cafe, the morning regulars asked Hajicek, "Are you going to miss the judge?"

"Absolutely," she replied.

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