BISMARCK — For the first time in 27 years, North Dakotans will look up to find a face other than Gerald VandeWalle's anchoring the state Supreme Court. With his eyes full of tears, VandeWalle handed the gavel over to his successor as chief justice, Jon Jensen, at a ceremony on Monday, Jan. 6.
Jensen technically took over the position at midnight on Jan. 1 — the 86-year-old VandeWalle said Monday he intended to congratulate the new chief over the phone but he said he couldn't stay up late enough.
Even though the ceremony didn't effectively change the court's structure, the occasion felt momentous. The ceremony was only the second of its kind and the first since VandeWalle assumed the top stop in 1993. After delivering the gavel to Jensen, VandeWalle took an unfamiliar seat on the edge of the bench, while Jensen sat down in the middle chair.
VandeWalle, who had been the longest-serving chief justice in the country, announced in September that he would not pursue another term in the top spot but will stay on the court. Several speakers noted that Jensen will have the nearly impossible job of filling his predecessor's shoes.
Justice Lisa Fair McEvers said VandeWalle is "a legend," while Gov. Doug Burgum called him "the greatest of all-time." A humble VandeWalle credited his colleagues and court staff with the successes and innovations of the court during his tenure.
"The best thing I can do is step out of the way and let them proceed with their ideas," VandeWalle said.
For his part, Jensen said he was glad to be surrounded "by people better than me," and said learning from his colleagues would make him a better chief justice.
In the elevated role, Jensen said he would like to streamline drug possession cases, boost resources for district court judges and add efficiency to the system through collaboration with district court judges and practicing attorneys. His designed duties will include leading the court system's decision-making on budgetary matters, reassigning judges to cases after a disqualification and making appointments to committees.
Jensen won the top spot on the court after defeating Justices Daniel Crothers and McEvers last year in elections decided by the state's 52 district court judges and the five justices. Despite his new authority, Jensen is the newest member of the high court, having been appointed by Burgum in 2017.
The 54-year-old must run for a new 10-year term in November 2020 to stay on the high court. He has never been elected to the Supreme Court by the public. Jensen could also face another challenge for the chief justice position at the same time if another justice decides to run against him.