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Quickly running out of room

Overcrowding in courthouse leading to delays in legal system

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Posted: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 10:53 am

The Williams County Courthouse is facing a dilemma: Even after adding two new judges in the last year, it is still behind on cases.

The main reason is that there is not enough room in the courthouse for each judge to do all the work they want in a timely manner.

Currently, the courthouse has three courtrooms plus an extra one in the basement. But there are four judges and a referee who drives down from Minot each month to hear cases.

The result is a huge backlog of cases.

Judge David Nelson, the district judge for the Northwestern District, called the situation embarrassing.

“Right now if you wanted a two-day trial on my calendar, it would probably be March or April of 2015,” Nelson said. “Judge Rustad just had to schedule a nine-day trial that was scheduled for June, and the lawyers wanted an extra eight weeks, to have it in August. And Judge Rustad said, well, if it’s not gonna be in June, let’s see when the next nine days on my calendar are. It was May of 2015. So, instead of a two-month delay they got a 12-month delay.”

Nelson said the problem has become so bad that even single-day divorce cases are being pushed back a year on his calendar.

“I’m now scheduling [divorce cases] for March 2015,” he said. “If somebody comes to me and wants to get a divorce — they have major issues. Who’s gonna get the kids? Who’s gonna get the property? It’s embarrassing for me to tell them ‘you’re gonna have to wait a year.’ That’s just unacceptable. We have to do something.”

Prior to the addition of judges Paul Jacobson and Robin Schmidt in 2013, the workload for Nelson and  Rustad was so bad they were getting burned out, Nelson said.

“The judges were completely overwhelmed, working early in the morning, late at night and on weekends,” Nelson said.

Now, the issue is one of space. After the county moved the jail from its old location to the new one, the people doing the planning forgot the old jail included a courtroom used for municipal hearings, Nelson said.

In the new building, there was no plan set up for a court to be used for municipal hearings.

So to accommodate the situation, the courthouse and the county commissioners agreed to allow one of their courtrooms — Courtroom No. 3 — to be used for municipal court twice a week.

“Municipal court is not a court of record,” Nelson said. “They can’t do jury trials. We spent a million dollars to build this courtroom, with a jury and recording equipment — so it is not an efficient use of our resources. They can set up in any room where they can build a bench. They don’t need any recording or a jury box, because they are not a court of record. We need to work with the city to find a court for them.”

In the spring, the county will begin to look at what to do with the recently purchased Montana-Dakota Utilities building, located right across from the courthouse and police station. Nelson said there was a possibility that some of that space would be used to fill courthouse-related needs.

But County Commissioner Dan Kalil says there are no plans to do anything with the courthouse right now.

“We are taking care of county needs,” he said. “We have done all we can for the court system at this time.”

Kalil stated that Nelson had not discussed the use of the MDU building for court needs with him.

“We have no plans of doing anything with the courthouse other than renovating the first floor,” Kalil said. “The third floor was just renovated.”

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