North Dakota Supreme Court justice calls for more judges to aid children, families – InForum

BISMARCK — A North Dakota Supreme Court Justice has provided guidance to lawmakers on how to better serve children and families in the court system. Her top priority: more judges.

Judge Lisa Fair McEvers told members of the North Dakota Legislature’s Interim Judiciary Committee that judges across the state are dealing with backlogged caseloads that can delay important decisions for children and their families.

“Children’s needs are changing rapidly,” she said in a written statement she submitted to the committee. “Therefore, very short and relatively strict deadlines, both legal and regulatory, require the immediate handling of juvenile cases.”

However, she added: “Our judging lists are full. The addition of additional judges would reduce women’s and children’s wait times for hearings. It would also give judges more time on each individual case, leading to better decisions.”

McEvers serves as chair of the Juvenile Policy Board and is a member of the Children’s Cabinet, formed in 2019 to “evaluate, guide and coordinate child care across all branches of government and tribal nations of North Dakota.”

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With judges overwhelmed, “too many cases” are exceeding decision deadlines, McEvers told lawmakers.

North Dakota now has 52 judges, about the same as there were 51 in 1992, she said. Since 1992, the number of cases has more than doubled, from 24,169 cases to 60,548, not including a traffic court.

McEvers was asked by Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, a retired teacher and Chair of the Children’s Cabinet, to propose and was later invited to present five recommendations that would enable the courts to improve the lives of children in families the Judiciary Committee.

In an interview with The Forum, McEvers called her recommendations a “justice wish list” and said the exact number of proposed new judges and other justice officials will come when Chief Justice Jon Jensen makes his budget request.

The demand for new judges is likely to be three or four, McEvers said. “We’re not going to ask for 20,” she said.

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In her other recommendations, McEvers called on lawmakers to support funding for permanent and full-time court improvement staff — program employees who perform various support roles — who have been classified as “temporary” for 12 years due to budget constraints, she said.

“It’s obviously a position that’s needed,” she said, adding that another temporary position as an analyst merits permanent full-time status.

Similarly, McEvers is calling for the expanded use of funded caseworkers to hire more on-site temp workers to provide information and help children enroll in programs and track compliance. “That’s another funding issue,” she said. “We’re looking for more people to work with children to make sure they’re getting what they need.”

Studies and experience have shown that by helping children “upstream, on the front end,” problems can be addressed to keep them from getting worse and follow them into adulthood.

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“You might not end up becoming a delinquent child,” McEvers said. “Or they might not end up in the criminal justice system as adults.”

There is also a need for more financial support to defend vulnerable juvenile offenders.

“Youth deserve competent representation,” McEvers said in her written testimony. “Represented youth are more likely to fully participate in the process. Too often, unrepresented juveniles admit to crime without really understanding the long-term consequences of their actions or whether they may have legitimately defended themselves against the allegations,” which consequences may follow children well into adulthood.

McEvers also advocated better addressing the needs of children and families in mental health and chemical addiction treatment. “We don’t have enough providers in our state,” she said. “families await”

The state should consider relaxing certain certification requirements that may discourage overseas consulting professionals from relocating to North Dakota, McEvers said.

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