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Study: Judges lacking leader

Cass County's state judges need stronger leadership to address internal troubles ranging from communication problems to a lack of mutual respect, says a report issued by a Minneapolis consulting firm.

Cass County's state judges need stronger leadership to address internal troubles ranging from communication problems to a lack of mutual respect, says a report issued by a Minneapolis consulting firm.

The three-page report, released Wednesday by Richard Olson of Olson Consulting Group, also discusses organizational problems within the East Central Judicial District, which includes Cass, Steele and Traill counties in North Dakota.

The findings come after a nearly three-month-long intervention of interviews and meetings with judges, clerks and administrative staff.

Despite the strong criticism, the discoveries are in many ways common for a judicial district, especially as large as the one reviewed, said State Court Administrator Ted Gladden, who suggested the consultations.

"It's not a crisis," he said.


Several factors fed the need for action, Gladden said. Long-standing concerns -- including how judges relate to staff, areas of authority and how policy is made and followed -- needed attention.

Two new judges, John Irby and Wade Webb, were introduced within the last 14 months, the latter to replace Ralph Erickson, appointed in March to be a federal judge.

Workers throughout the district's system were also struggling to reorganize themselves under new state guidelines.

"I said, 'There are a whole lot of issues that I think you folks need to look at, and now is the time to do it,' " Gladden said.

According to Olson's report, one of the leading problems was a lack of leadership in the eight-member chamber.

Michael McGuire, who resigned in late May from his first term as presiding judge, was alluded to as not providing enough leadership.

In one example, the report says the district's judges had not met in at least two years. Among other general administrative duties, the presiding judge is responsible for calling regular meetings to deal with common issues.

McGuire, who did not return a message left at his office Thursday, said in May that as presiding judge he had to deal with "a lot of extra stuff that I don't need." He offered no explanation on his faxed resignation to State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, though he later said the move would give him more time to spend with his grandchildren.


To finish McGuire's three-year presiding judge term ending Feb. 1, 2004, VandeWalle selected Norman Backes, who was appointed a judge in 1978 and has served several terms in the presiding role. A message for comment on Olson's report was left at Backes' home phone Thursday but was not returned.

To address the issues he raised, Olson plans to meet with the judges in one or two follow-up sessions. The initial consultations cost taxpayers $8,000, Gladden said.

Elected by voters or appointed by the governor, a district judge's role is independent by nature, the report says, a tendency that fueled many of the problems. But also at work was systemic confusion over roles and responsibilities, the report says.

In fact, Gladden said he suggested McGuire hire an outside consultant after the judge caused a "minor furor" among clerks by delegating authority in their office against the wishes of some.

But, Gladden insisted, McGuire himself was not the reason Olson was called. Rather, McGuire embraced the advice and supported it, Gladden said.

Others in the courthouse welcomed the intervention as well.

Eloise Haaland, the district's administrative assistant since 1991, said she was glad to work with Olson.

"I think everyone is happy that we're following through with this," she said.


Haaland, who's been working within the district's administration for more than 27 years, will retire next month. She said she took no offense to the report's recommendation that called for a stronger, more unified leadership position in her place.

Courthouse hierarchies pose problems everywhere, she said, and this district is no different. More than anything, it was the system that caused the problems, not any one person, Haaland said.

"Judges need to judge and administrators need to administrate," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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