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Published January 17, 2014, 09:10 AM

Halls of justice too tight for North Dakota Supreme Court

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s Supreme Court has outgrown its current digs at the state Capitol and would like to merge its splintered operations under one roof to boost efficiency.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, INFORUM, Forum News Service

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s Supreme Court has outgrown its current digs at the state Capitol and would like to merge its splintered operations under one roof to boost efficiency.

“We’re looking for a comprehensive solution,” State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said Thursday after testifying before the Legislature’s interim Government Services Committee.

In August, the committee requested a space needs analysis for the Supreme Court as part of a broader look at the facility needs of all state agencies in the Bismarck area.

The analysis by JLG Architects is expected to be completed by March 1, but preliminary data indicate the Supreme Court and its related operations need about 52,000 square feet, which is 22,700 more than the space they now occupy in the Capitol’s judicial wing, Holewa said.

The judicial wing currently houses the Supreme Court, its clerk’s office, the Board of Law Examiners, the state law library, Central Legal Services and the court administrator’s office.

The wing was built in 1981, before North Dakota adopted a unified state court system, “so the administrative staff was smaller than it is now,” Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said.

“We just need more space,” he said. “There’s a distinction between the building that was built, and what is was built for, and where we are now.”

The Supreme Court rents an additional 11,156 square feet to house its information technology operations in a downtown Bismarck office building, which requires court staff to run backup data tapes back and forth between the locations, Holewa said.

The operations in the judicial wing also are split between two floors, she noted.

“It’s not very efficient,” she said.

The judicial wing also lacks adequate conference rooms and training space, requiring the court to routinely rent space at hotels, Holewa said. Training for court clerks from across the state encompasses some 400 people, but the judicial wing has only three training rooms: two that can hold eight people and one that can hold 10 people, she said.

VandeWalle said there are several potential solutions, including finding more space in the existing Capitol complex, moving off site into rented space or building new. He said he’d like to keep the Supreme Court on the Capitol grounds, but added there’s not a lot of room on the campus to build.

“I’m looking to the committee … to give us some help and assistance and maybe some ideas of what we can do with that,” he said.

Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, the committee’s chairman, said members are charged with studying the needs of all state agencies, and the courts are “just one piece of the puzzle.”

The committee’s findings will be compiled into a report to the Legislature, but it’s too early to say whether any proposed legislation will arise from the committee’s work, he said.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

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