Construction on the third floor of the Williams County Memorial Courthouse is nearing completion, opening the door for a third district judge to move in soon.
District Judge David Nelson told county commissioners the county will almost certainly get a third judge and could get some benefits from a fourth judge that will be chambered in the area.
“Judgeship 10 is pretty much a slam dunk for Williston,” Nelson said. “We have the chambers, and we are ready. There’s been some discussion about judgeship 11. The two places they’re looking are Mountrail and McKenzie counties. Neither one is really fighting for it. If we had the space, Williams County would be an ideal place. But we don’t have the space.”
Even without the space, Nelson said the county could benefit, especially if the judge is placed in Watford City.
“Even if that judge is chambered in Watford City, we will expect that judge to do at least one week here and maybe two weeks here,” Nelson said.
Whether the county gets one judge or two, there will be plenty of work to go around. Nelson said since the oil boom started, the workload in the district court has skyrocketed.
He explained that in Minot, there are six district judges and a person called a referee that can handle some cases. In that district, cases are scheduled six deep when a jury trial is set to ensure one can go to trial.
In Williams County, things are much busier.
“Thirty cases are scheduled on the same day and in front of the same judge,” Nelson said. “We hope that some of them settle.”
Nelson said in his office the trials being scheduled now are being set for February 2014.
“We are doing the equivalent of seven judges,” he said.
In the Minot court, six judges and seven state’s attorneys handled 3,380 cases last year. In Williston, two judges and three attorneys handled 4,076. In addition, 40 percent of all probate cases in the state last year came from a four-county area around Williston.
With the extreme caseload that seems to be climbing daily, Nelson said more help will be needed soon.
“In two years, I’m going to be asking for a referee and I’m going to be asking for another judge,: he said. “I will need more space and another courtroom.”
The easiest way to accommodate the need, Nelson said, would be to turn the memorial courtroom now used for municipal court into a district courtroom. The only problem is the city uses that courtroom for its misdemeanor municipal cases. He told commissioners it might be time to begin a discussion with the city about the courtroom in the future.
While most of the commissioners seemed uncomfortable with the request, Commissioner David Montgomery said if the city is planning to build new office space, it might consider putting a municipal courtroom in that space.
While the future is still uncertain, Nelson said he will be happy to get help from another judge. And when that judge is named, he or she will have a safe area to work.
“When we’re done upstairs, we will have the chambers sealed from the public,” Nelson said. “You will have to be buzzed in. We will have the kind of security we should have had five years ago.”
The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision on the judges within a month.