Q&A with Pat Merriman, Dunn County State’s Attorney

NH asks Q- “Why are most court hearing so short? “ A-Good question. Except for lawyers, to most people, appearing in a courtroom is something that may only happen once or twice in their lifetime, so, a mystique gathers around the process. And, of course, fueled by television shows like Law & Order, people assume that some long, drawn-out process is necessary for something to be “legal”  only to be disenchanted when they see the volume of court cases handled by our 3 judges on a daily basis. It is simply the nature of courtroom work–too many cases and not enough time. In his article entitled North Dakota Judge Calls for More Staff to Relieve Conveyor Belt Justice System last week in the Dickinson Press, reporter Mike Nowatzki related that, “A lack of resources in North Dakota’s courts has led to a system of ‘conveyor-belt justice’ where hearings are often run by script and concluded in less than five minutes.”
Nowitzki also noted that Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Van de Walle was calling on lawmakers to approve more judges and court staff to remedy the problem. Justice Van de Walle hit the nail on the head in his State of the Judiciary Address when he noted that “the court caseload has increased dramatically in the past decade, particularly in oil-impacted counties.” Amen!  “The lack of judges and court staff affects entire communities, he said. Those charged with crimes sit in jail longer while they wait for their day in court and a judgment of guilt or innocence,” he said. “This is disruptive to their own lives and those of their families; it is hard on the alleged victims and the witnesses who wait to testify, and it costs the counties thousands of dollars in incarceration costs.” And, that does not even begin to address the explosion of juvenile, divorce, child custody, paternity and other civil cases crowding the court’s docket.
Under the legislative proposal, the Southwest District (comprised of Stark, Dunn, Golden Valley, Billings, Slope, Hettinger, Bowman and Adams counties) would receive one new judgeship raising our total to 4. Something that legislators need to seriously consider as this state’s caseload continues to shift from the eastern half of North Dakota to the oil patch.

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