Dakota Territory boomed in the 1880s. In ten years, the population more than quadrupled to 600,000 people. This brought a need for more services, like the courts.
To evaluate the need, Dakota’s governor and congressional representative reached out to judges in the territory about their caseload in support of legislation that would add associate justices for the territory.
Territorial Supreme Court justices also sat separately as district court judges in those days. William H. Francis was a judge in Bismarck who presided over forty-three early North Dakota counties. In a letter to Dakota Governor Louis K. Church, he said court business was increasing, but the jails were largely empty. Francis wrote that “respect for the court and for law and order is generally prevalent throughout the entire district.”
William B. McConnell, a judge based in Fargo, gave hard numbers in response to the request for information, reporting 649 cases awaiting trial with eleven on appeal. His district had reached almost 100 judgments a month, or about three per day. He said his court stenographers were “two of the very best,” but both were busy with court work and preparing transcripts. He wrote that “The amount of work at chambers has been very heavy and very exacting.” In his letter on this date in 1887, McConnell wrote in support of the bill to add judges, saying: “It looks unrealistic and unjust to our people that one judge should be required to perform the duties required of him in a district like this, where the lives, liberty, home and property of the citizen are in the balance.”
The need for more judges was clear. Consequently, the Supreme Court of Dakota Territory more than doubled in size from 1879 to 1888, going from three to eight justices – all appointed by the president.
After statehood, North Dakota’s judiciary continued to grow. As of 2015, there were fifty-one district judges serving in the state’s eight judicial districts.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Chiorazzi, M., Most, M. (2013). Prestatehood legal materials: A fifty state research guide. Routledge.
Lauck, J.K. (2010). Prairie republic: The political culture of Dakota territory, 1879-1889. University of Oklahoma Press.
Albany Law Journal Company. (1893). The Albany law journal: A weekly record of the law and the times. Albany Law Journal Company: Albany, NY.
Robinson, Amy. (2015, Oct. 6). El-Dweek becomes county’s second judge. McKenzie County Farmer: http://www.watfordcitynd.com/latest-news/el-dweek-becomes-countyrsquos-second-judge/
United States Department of the Interior. (1887). Report of the secretary of the interior. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.