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Council recommends adding ND judicial staff, judge

BISMARCK—A council of North Dakota's judiciary has recommended that the state Supreme Court budget 10 additional staff positions for the 2019-21 biennium, as well as an additional judgeship.

State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said the state Supreme Court will meet in two weeks to discuss its budget proposal, which is due by Nov. 15 to the state Office of Management Budget. In 2017, the state court system cut about 35 staff amid budget reductions.

North Dakota has 51 district judges serving eight districts. The recommended judgeship, with a court reporter, is for the South Central Judicial District, which includes Burleigh and Morton counties. The judicial district has experienced an ongoing judicial shortage of about three judges, based on caseload studies.

Holewa said the total cost of the recommended staff and judge is more than $2.2 million. She said the staff cuts from 2017 were "from our need, not from our surplus."

"We always understood that this was a drastic temporary cut," she said.

Gail Hagerty, presiding judge of the South Central Judicial District, said it's important to make judicial needs known to state legislators so they're aware of the situation. She also cautioned that the recommended positions await Supreme Court approval for its budget request.

"When things go to the Legislature, then that is hard to know the kind of pressures that they'll be dealing with," she said.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who chairs the interim Judiciary Committee, said he appreciates the judicial branch basing its budget requests on comprehensive caseload data.

"That's a pretty good indicator of workloads," he said.

Hagerty said the judicial shortage has led to a "critical" scheduling need for judges, with difficulty scheduling longer trials.

Fewer court staff has led to slower timelines, clerical errors and has limited days on which court can be held, according to Holewa.

"You can't hold court on certain days when there's no one there to take the record," she said.

The appetite remains to be seen for adding court staff or any additional state employees in the 2019 session, according to Hogue, who also said he would prioritize pay raises for current employees. State employees did not receive raises from the 2017 session.

"We'll look at all requests to add people, but like I said before, I think the judiciary's reliance on comprehensive data as opposed to anecdotal date is very persuasive to legislators," Hogue said.

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