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Port: Unethical actions of a judge expose problems with municipal courts

We must remember that municipal courts have been organized not as a venue for justice but as a way for municipal governments to raise revenues.

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MINOT, N.D. — Ashley Beall is a lawyer, a professor at Minot State University , and a municipal court judge for the City of Minot .

Last year one of her students came to her alleging that she had been sexually assaulted while at a party at North Dakota State University . This set off a chain of events in which Beall would act as the student's attorney and, according to the attorney for the accused, use her title as a judge to get an investigating law enforcement officer fired for allegedly making victim-blaming comments.

The defense says Beall's actions had a chilling effect on other officers who shied away from a thorough investigation lest they, too, be accused of victim-blaming by someone with the title "judge."

Beall unsuccessfully fought a subpoena to give evidence in that case .

Whatever comes of those proceedings, one thing is clear: North Dakota's municipal courts have big problems.

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Those presiding over them do not have the legal training most of us assume is requisite for someone presuming to call themselves "judge." Of North Dakota's 75 municipal judges, Beall is one of only 19 with law degrees .

If you don't like a judgment issued by one of these courts, you only have 30 days to appeal it to district court, a period of time that, in some circumstances, can pass before an individual even knows they have a judgment against them.

Even something as simple as basic record keeping is a problem in these shoddily run courts. They don't keep transcripts of their proceedings, and there are no standardized rules for which records from proceedings must be kept, and for how long. Even if you wanted to appeal a judgment issued by a municipal judge who may or may not have any legal training, and you managed to be within the brief window for such an appeal, your ability to get records on which to base that appeal would hinge on which municipal court you're dealing with.

How did this sorry state of affairs come to be?

We must remember that municipal courts have been organized not as a venue for justice but as a way for municipal governments to raise revenues. Unlike district courts, where, per Section 2, Article IX, of the state constitution , levied fines must go to the state's Common Schools Trust Fund, city governments get to keep the money from municipal court proceedings.

That's why lobbyists for North Dakota's city governments pushed for the ability to raise local traffic fines beyond statewide levels . It's why the Legislature, earlier this year, allowed municipal court judgments to be treated like district court judgments for the purposes of collections.

Beall's actions were misguided and unprofessional, and may well have hampered the ability of her own client to find justice, but they are a small part of a larger problem with North Dakota's municipal courts.

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To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

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