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September 12: Year of Four Chief Justices

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The 1930s were a turbulent time in North Dakota’s state government. Political chaos meant several offices were a revolving door, including governor and tax commissioner.

Four men served as chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court during an 11-month period from December 1932 to November 1933. This was due to a ballot measure passed by voters in 1930. The measure lengthened justices’ terms from six years to ten. Way back when, the justice who had the shortest remaining term served as chief justice. This led to some justices holding the chief’s role multiple times as reelections shuffled the remaining terms.

The 1934 election had three Supreme Court seats on the ballot, so beginning in 1933, the two-year term of chief justice was evenly divided among the three incumbents, each taking the reins for an eight-month stint.

To avoid a re-occurrence of this clunky situation, the 1934 election employed different term lengths for the three seats -- 10 years, eight years and six years. Subsequent elections would return to 10-year terms, which would then be staggered.

Also in 1934, the court’s disqualification of Governor Bill Langer from office due to his federal felony conviction for corruption made the Supreme Court race a hot ticket. Justice Adolph Christianson’s term as chief justice ended on the last day of 1932. Then Justice William Nuessle served as chief justice from January to September of 1933, followed by Justice Luther Birdzell, taking over when the court reconvened on this date in 1933. But Birdzell resigned shortly afterward to take a job as general counsel for the newly formed Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Langer appointed District Court Judge George Moellring to replace Birdzell. Justice Alexander Burr then succeeded Birdzell as chief justice.

Burr and Nuessle won reelection in 1934. Former Attorney General James Morris won a Supreme Court seat, too. The Bismarck Tribune reported that the three winners had run on a nonpolitical platform, and were “violently opposed” in the race by Langer supporters. The court election was high-profile because Burr and Nuessle were in the majority of the court opinion that ousted Langer. Moellring, who lost the race and served only a year on the court, was the only dissenter in the Langer opinion.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


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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