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North Dakota's longest-serving Supreme Court justice to retire

Appointed in 1978, VandeWalle has served 44 years on the high court, including 27 as its chief justice — a title he passed to colleague Jon Jensen in 2020. The 89-year-old said recent health challenges have made it difficult for him to continue serving on the court.

North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle speaks at the annual North Dakota Peace Officer Memorial Day ceremony in Memorial Hall at the state Capitol in Bismarck in 2017. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Gerald VandeWalle speaks at the annual North Dakota Peace Officer Memorial Day ceremony in Memorial Hall at the state Capitol in Bismarck in 2017.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Gerald VandeWalle, the longest-tenured justice in the history of the North Dakota Supreme Court, will retire at the end of January.

Appointed in 1978 by Gov. Arthur Link, VandeWalle has served 44 years on the high court, including 27 as its chief justice — a title he passed to colleague Jon Jensen in 2020.

VandeWalle, known for his humility, told Forum News Service he's not sure if he's proud of any part of his tenure, but he's satisfied with his performance on the court.

"I tried hard, and I gave it my best shot," VandeWalle said.

The justice said his legacy lies in the opinions he penned and signed as a member of the court — "they stand for themselves," he said.

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The 89-year-old said recent health challenges have made it difficult for him to continue serving on the court. VandeWalle told Forum News Service he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He had previously been diagnosed with macular degeneration, an eye disease, and atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that came as a result of a battle with COVID-19 in 2020.

As the elder statesman of the court, VandeWalle has gained legendary status among his peers in North Dakota public life and the legal realm. A portrait of the justice hangs in the Rough Rider Award Hall of Fame on the first floor of the state Capitol building.

Gov. Doug Burgum showered VandeWalle in praise, calling his career in public service "exceptional" and "illustrious."

"A towering figure in the legal community and beloved fixture in the halls of the Capitol, he leaves a remarkable and unparalleled legacy of service to which all North Dakotans can aspire," Burgum said in a news release.

jensen_vandewalle.jpg
North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Jon Jensen, left, shakes hands with his predecessor, Justice Gerald VandeWalle, at a ceremony in the state Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020. VandeWalle held the top position on the court for 27 years.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Petra Hulm, the clerk of the Supreme Court, said in a news release that VandeWalle leaves "an indelible mark on North Dakota history."

"His warmth and kindness will be missed by those of us who had the privilege to work with him," Hulm said.

U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said he is thankful to have developed a relationship with VandeWalle during the course of his legal and political career.

"He has a record that will never be matched. He is an absolute legend,” Armstrong said.

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U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said VandeWalle "has been a dedicated public servant, working throughout his career to uphold our laws and protect the rights of our state’s people."

U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the state "has benefited from (VandeWalle's) wisdom and candor as he sought to uphold the law with impartiality in every decision he made."

VandeWalle, who was elected to 10-year terms four times by North Dakota voters, still has two years left on his current term. Burgum will be tasked with appointing VandeWalle's successor, who would be on the ballot in 2026 if he or she wishes to remain on the court.

The justice said he tried to be "a people person" during his tenure, and he hopes the public will view judges as "human beings just as they are."

VandeWalle said he's sure the court will "do fine without me." He thanked North Dakotans for allowing him to serve so long and said residents "should be proud of what we have."

The Noonan native ended the resignation letter he sent to Burgum with a simple recognition of his home state: "It is great to be a North Dakotan!"

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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