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October 18: Judge Lester Ketterling

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On this date in 1987, the Bismarck Tribune reported on Lester Ketterling, the new county judge for Bottineau, Renville, and Rollette counties. Judge Ketterling enjoyed the job and had a long career to look forward to. However, his journey to becoming a judge had not been easy, since he lost his eyesight at age 12.

Ketterling was born in 1940 in Wishek. He graduated from the State School for the Blind and went on to the University of North Dakota. He was only the second student who was blind to attend UND’s law school. He was an excellent student and finished in the top third of his class. In order to take his bar exam a secretary dictated the questions while he typed the answers. He became the second blind person to pass the bar in North Dakota.

But no one seemed to want an attorney who was blind. He put in 25 job applications over two years and was rejected each time. However, he then received an invitation from the community of Westhope. The town was in need of a lawyer, so Ketterling set up a private practice. He also worked as a Bottineau County Justice.

Ketterling enjoyed the work. He was able to walk to work, and was involved in his community, especially with the Lutheran church. He married Eunice Foss in 1974. She, too, was a graduate of the State School for the Blind and the University of North Dakota.

In 1982, Ketterling ran for county judge, covering Bottineau, Rollette, and Renville counties. He lost, but ran again in 1986 and won handily.

Ketterling felt that being a blind judge had advantages. He said, “I’m not distracted by appearances; I deal in what’s happening.”

His court reporter acted as his secretary and driver. Interns read briefs and other documents for his consideration. He dictated his opinions and orders to the court reporter. He kept notes using a Braille note-taking device, and had an excellent memory, including a working memory of the North Dakota Century Code, a 21-volume set of state laws.

Judge Ketterling served as county judge until 1994 when he was elected to the state bench as a district judge. He held that position until retiring in 2005. He passed away in 2010.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa

Sources:

  • Anderson, Peter, “Blindness Allows Judge to ‘Deal in What’s Happening’ without Distraction,” The Bismarck Tribune, February 17, 1991.
  • Associated Press, “Blind Lawyer has Vision of Judgeship,” The Bismarck Tribune, December 5, 1986, pg. 10.
  • Associated Press, “Blindness no Handicap to County Judge,” The Bismarck Tribune, October 18, 1987, pg. 16C.
  • Associated Press, “He’s 2nd Blind Person Okayed for State Bar,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 20, 1964, pg. 8.
  • Author Unknown, “Blind Law Student Admitted to N.D. Bar,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 17, 1964, pg. 21.
  • Author Unknown, “Engaged,” The Bismarck Tribune, August 28, 1974, pg. 7.
  • Kolpack, Dave, “Northeast District Judge Announces Resignation,” The Bismarck Tribune, October 25, 2005, pg. 5B.
  • Lester Ketterling Obituary https://www.nerofuneralhome.net/obituary/1008998?fh_id=13570, retrieved September 20, 2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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