To people meeting him outside of the courtroom he's introduced as Mr. Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle. To workers and staff in the offices of the North Dakota Supreme Court, he's just called Chief."He's so personable and approachable," said Kathy Arneson, the Chief's secretary at the North Dakota Supreme since 2000. "It's just easier to call him Chief."
After 20 years as first assistant attorney general for North Dakota, VandeWalle was appointed a justice to the Supreme Court in 1978. He was elevated to chief justice in 1993 with the retirement of Ralph Erickstad. "Getting used to the new title was hard," VandeWalle said. "The chief to me was Ralph Erickstad."
Ten months a year the state Supreme Court hears about 250 cases. Many can seem similar in circumstances and legal arguments. "The one thing I try to remember is that while the case may be routine for us, very often for the parties it's the most important case in the world." A unique aspect of the court is the give and take discussions between the justices and the lawyers. Often the justices pose "devil's advocate" questions. "I tell all young lawyers to forget about prepared statements, because you won't get 10 words out before we interrupt."
With his 10-year term ending in 2014 and at 79 years old, VandeWalle isn't sure what his plans are for the future. "I will decide by the end of this year. I'm not being coy, I'm pushing (the decision) off." After sitting on the court for nearly 35 years, VandeWalle finds himself looking past his accomplishments and paying attention toward the bigger picture. "I don't worry about my legacy. My main concern is the people's confidence in the judicial system and its acceptance by the people."