BISMARCK - Just one statewide race in North Dakota this year has no political party associated with it: a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court.
North Dakota's judicial races have been nonpartisan since 1910, after a nasty election involving libel in 1906. This year, voters will weigh incumbent Justice Lisa Fair McEvers, who has served almost five years, and longtime Bismarck trial lawyer Bob Bolinske Sr., who previously ran unsuccessfully in 2016.
Those involved with the judiciary say experience and temperament are key to consider for Supreme Court candidates. Almost 400 North Dakota lawyers participated in a survey that scored McEvers and Bolinske for their judicial temperament, integrity and experience, among other traits.
"The electorate should look for experience, look for temperament, look for someone who knows how to do the job," said Tony Weiler, executive director of the State Bar Association of North Dakota, adding that the organization does not endorse candidates.
While today's high court is younger than previous makeups - three of five justices were appointed in the past five years - they bring different lines on their resumes, such as previous trial court judges, litigators and members of the executive branch.
"I think you can get to the court with any sort of background, but usually they're very experienced attorneys and distinguished in their field, whatever that may be," Weiler said.
State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said voters should look for "fidelity to the law" and a "lasered focus" for the high court.
"It's the willingness to apply the law as it is and not how they might wish it to be," she said.
Standing on her record
McEvers took office in 2014 on Gov. Jack Dalrymple's appointment, and she won an unexpired two-year term in 2016. She was previously a district judge in Fargo and state labor commissioner in Gov. John Hoeven's cabinet from 2005-10.
Prior to that, she was a Cass County prosecutor, in private practice, a law clerk for the North Dakota Supreme Court and worked in court administration before attending law school. She's been licensed for 21 years.
McEvers said her record stands on its own merits, from her years in trial court to the executive branch. As a justice, she's authored more than 170 majority opinions and estimates she's sat on more than 1,000 cases.
While Bolinske has been a lawyer longer than she has, McEvers said the substance of their legal careers carries weight, such as her judicial experience.
McEvers has served on a number of court committees, including the Juvenile Policy Board and Personnel Policy Board, among others. She also said five years as labor commissioner helped prepare her for her current administrative duties.
"You're not just going to be able to do one kind of thing on this court," McEvers said. "It's good to have a varied kind of experience."
More than 60 percent of respondents to the bar association's survey ranked her professional competence, legal experience and integrity as "excellent." More than 70 percent of respondents rated her temperament as "excellent."
"I've always tried to treat folks with respect, whether I'm on the bench or in front of the bench with an opponent," McEvers said. "I pride myself in trying to be even-tempered and treat people how I'd like to be treated."
Her seat is one previously held by the first two female Supreme Court justices in North Dakota: Beryl Levine, who retired in 1996, and Mary Muehlen Maring, who retired in 2013. McEvers said her gender shouldn't be a voting factor, but added she brings a different perspective as a woman to an otherwise all-male court.
A woman on the court also gives young girls something to aspire to, she said: "You can see yourself in a role when you've seen another person in that role."
'A search for the truth'
Bolinske is back on the ballot after his unsuccessful run in 2016. If elected, he said he intends to uproot what he sees as dishonesty and abuse he attributes to certain judges and attorneys. He pointed to expensive litigation and encumbered prosecution as what he sees as abuse.
"My goal in life I decided not too long ago, as an attorney, was to abuse the abusers," Bolinske said. "I've seen so many little people, regular people get abused by the powerful that the sides need to be evened up a little bit, and I'm the guy what to do it."
He referenced his own case involving an admonition upheld by the state Supreme Court in which a bar committee admonished him for alleging in a press release that judges hid court records. Bolinske said he'll file a federal lawsuit to question those who he says are ruining his life and reputation.
"I'm ready for war," Bolinske said. "I've been ready for war with these people. I just can't wait to get into the ring with them. They think they've been hunting me. I'm like the grizzly bear that's really been hunting them. I'm going to rear up behind them, and they're going to be very surprised and shocked, and I think their sphincters are going to tighten up. I really do."
He said voters should consider the number and types of cases he and McEvers have tried: "I've done defense work. I've done plaintiff's work. I've done domestic relations work. I've tried more cases, I would bet, than the whole Supreme Court put together."
Bolinske disputed the bar association's survey as "the phoniest damn thing that I've ever seen." About 54 percent of respondents ranked his judicial temperament as "poor," while about 3 percent ranked "excellent." Legal experience was Bolinske's best ranked trait, with about 21 percent of respondents ranking his as "average." He's been an attorney for more than 40 years.
He also denounced press coverage as "prejudiced" of a debate in 2016 in which he participated and was noted for his fiery rhetoric toward opponent Jerod Tufte, though he did admit he is a "combative" person unafraid of authority figures.
"Justice, the law, is supposed to be a search for truth, not a polite little patty cake game," Bolinske said. "It's a nasty business. It's a really nasty business."