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Amendment would raise civil lawsuit filing fee to support UND law school

A cyclist pedals past the UND Law School in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—The State Bar Association of North Dakota introduced an amendment to the state judiciary budget that would provide direct, long-term support to the UND law school Tuesday in front of the Senate Appropriations committee.

The amendment would raise the civil lawsuit filing fee from its current rate of $80 to $180, with the additional $100 going to the UND law school.

"Primarily the objective (of the amendment) is to have sustainable and long-term funding dedicated specifically to the UND School of Law, so that the law school is appropriately and fully funded," said Zack Pelham, president of the State Bar Association.

The law school has suffered significant budget cuts over the past couple of years and is in need of some sort of funding mechanism beyond the higher education funding formula, Pelham said.

"The whole purpose of the law school is to produce practice-ready attorneys," he said.

In addition to providing adequate funding to support the needed faculty and staff at the school, the additional dollars could also bring back the law clinic where students learn how to be attorneys in practical ways.

North Dakota's filing rate is already much lower than the federal rate and that of surrounding states. The cost to file a civil lawsuit in federal court is $400. In Minnesota, it costs $295 to start an action, and there are other miscellaneous fees depending on the type of case or the action taken, Pelham said. Montana recently raised its filing fee from $90 to $170 in a civil action lawsuit, he added.

Pelham said the law school needs increased funding and no further cuts. The SBAND Board of Governors recently voted to support the proposed amendment as a way to support the law school.

Civil filings in North Dakota for the 2015-17 biennium totaled 47,654 cases, according to Pelham. If the filing fee were raised $100 and provided to the law school, the school could see upwards of $4.7 million per biennium. Pelham noted that number is somewhat fluid and could change over time. And he added there are cases when the fee is waived for those who cannot afford it.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who chairs the Senate Appropriations committee, said the committee discussed whether there was precedence for the allocation. No one knew of a model where the state filing fees were used to help support a law school, he said.

There was also discussion about whether it would be "cleaner" to raise the fees and have the money go to the general fund and then appropriate the money to the law school, Holmberg said.

The law school and its budget will continue to be looked at, not only through this amendment with the judiciary budget, but also through the higher education budget over the next two weeks.

Holmberg said he would likely be supportive of a solution like this one.

"I think there is a realization that the law school has accreditation coming up," Holmberg said, adding there are issues, particularly with funding, that need to be worked on ahead of that accreditation in the next two years.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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