BISMARCK – Gerald VandeWalle, the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court for the past 21 years and the longest-serving sitting chief justice in the nation, will receive the state’s highest honor in January.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Thursday named VandeWalle the 41st recipient of the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state’s highest commendation for its citizens.

VandeWalle has served on the Supreme Court for more than 36 years and was recently re-elected to his fourth 10-year term. He’s the longest-serving chief justice in state history.

“When you think about visionary leaders having a significant impact on our state, Justice VandeWalle stands out among the rest,” Dalrymple said in a news release. “Throughout his tenure, he has been instrumental in strengthening North Dakota’s judicial system and enhancing the safety and quality of life for our communities.

“His commitment to upholding the laws of our state and protecting the fundamental rights of our people has shaped his service over the past three decades, and his numerous accomplishments will leave a lasting legacy on our state court system and the state of North Dakota.”

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VandeWalle played a key role in unifying the state court system and was instrumental in redefining North Dakota’s judicial districts and increasing the number of judges to accommodate growth in the state’s economy and population, the governor’s office said.

VandeWalle was born in 1933 and raised in Noonan, in the northwest corner of the state. He earned a law degree magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1958 and was admitted to the State Bar that same year.

He worked as a special assistant attorney general and was appointed first assistant attorney general in 1975. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in August 1978 and was elected chief justice in 1993.

VandeWalle said in the news release that the idea that he would receive the award “from the state and people I love was never even in my wildest dreams or imagination.

“I cannot believe it is real. But if it is, I hope the focus is not on me as an individual, but rather appreciation and respect for the rule of law and our judicial system,” he said.

Dalrymple will present the award to VandeWalle during a joint session of the 64th Legislative Assembly at 1 p.m. Jan. 7 in the House Chamber of the state Capitol in Bismarck, after VandeWalle’s State of the Judiciary address. Dalrymple will unveil a portrait of VandeWalle that will hang in the Rough Rider Hall of Fame in the Capitol.