Chief Justice VandeWalle, Class of '58, Running for Another 10-year Term
As a youngster and when refrigeration was rare, Gerald VandeWalle hurried door-to-door delivering fresh milk from his family's dairy farm in a tiny town in the state's northwest corner. There is still pep in the step of the man who went on to become chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court.
The never-married octogenarian judge, who walks three miles daily at a brisk pace that belies his age, is running unopposed for another 10-year term in November, saying he's in good health and still a student of law after more than 35 years on the high court.
"Some people think the epitome of success is early retirement," said VandeWalle, who turns 81 this month. "It takes talent to retire and be happy. I don't have that talent."
VandeWalle is the longest-serving chief justice in state history and the oldest state chief justice in the nation.
"They refer to me as the 'dean' (of chief justices). That's a euphemism for 'old,'" he said.
"Jerry," as he prefers to be called outside the courtroom, is a native of Noonan and a University of North Dakota graduate. He was appointed to the Supreme Court on Aug. 15, 1978, by former Gov. Arthur Link. He's been elected three times and selected chief justice by his colleagues four times since 1993.
VandeWalle has overseen hundreds of disputes and written scores of opinions. He has promoted boosting legal services for thousands of disadvantaged residents who cannot afford a lawyer. He also has advocated for more money to expand special drug courts and more pay for state district judges to retain and attract quality people.
VandeWalle said the biggest challenge for the state court system over the next decade is a growing caseload spurred by oil development. He successfully appealed to state lawmakers last year to add two judgeships in the epicenter of the oil boom and one in Fargo.
"I hope people understand that adding a bunch of new police officers is going to impact the court," VandeWalle said. "Unless all they are doing is helping little old ladies across the street."
That he is running for another term surprises no one in North Dakota, and no one suggests he may have lost a step.
"When you see him in operation, you understand his age is not a problem," said retired Justice Beryl Levine, the state's first female justice, who considers VandeWalle a friend and mentor.
"His mind is better than my mind," said Levine, 79, calling him the most open-mined, even-handed person she's met. "Of all the judges I've worked with — and I've worked with a few — he brings the least ideology with him to the bench."
Tall, lanky and quick-witted with a bearing befitting a beloved grandfather, VandeWalle said he has remained a bachelor because he was "too selfish" about his own career to start a family. He cared for his mother for decades until she died in 2006, at age 102.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon calls VandeWalle a "giant in the legal landscape of North Dakota." Former U.S. Attorney and current Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said VandeWalle "is universally respected and the most beloved judge in America. He genuinely cares about people."
VandeWalle is no-nonsense in the court room, and attorneys sit up a bit straighter when queried by him.
"I've been on the losing end and the winning end of his decisions," said Tristan Van de Streek, a state prosecutor in Fargo. "You know he will have good questions and you have to be on your toes or you will be stumped and look foolish."
Jack McDonald, state bar association president, said VandeWalle is "physically and mentally alert."
"If he did not feel up to it, he would not run again," McDonald said. "He has the institutional knowledge that nobody else can have because he's been up there so long."
VandeWalle said the five justices don't always agree.
"The coalition shifts depending on the issue. We are not always dissenting and we're not always concurring with one another," he said.
Except when it's icy and he's stuck doing laps inside the Capitol after work, VandeWalle walks around Bismarck neighborhoods, often varying the route but never avoiding hills.
"I walk as much for my mental health as for my physical health," he said. "I do a little praying, a little thinking, a little contemplating and sometimes a solution to a case will come to mind. I look at people's yards and flowers. And I meet people."