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The North Dakota Supreme Court was established by the North Dakota State Constitution and consists of five justices elected for staggered ten-year terms. The justices and district court judges elect one of the justices to serve as Chief Justice for a five-year term. The Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the state and hears appeals from lower courts. The Supreme Court has administrative authority over all other state courts and promulgates rules and regulations governing procedures for the lower courts. Any North Dakota law can be declared unconstitutional by agreement of four of the five justices while agreement of three justices constitutes a decision or opinion. The Chief Justice is a member of the Board of Pardons (1901) and a member of the Board for Trial of Contested Presidential Electors (1892). The Supreme Court forms part of the North Dakota Judicial Council and is headquartered in the State Capitol in Bismarck. The Clerk of the Supreme Court serves on the State Canvassing Board (1915).

The composition and functions of the Supreme Court have changed little over the years. Beginning in 1862, the Territorial Supreme Court consisted of a Chief Justice and two associate justices appointed by the President of the United States to serve four-year terms. The court system of the territory consisted of three judicial districts presided over by a justice doubling as a district court judge. A fourth associate justice was added to the Supreme Court and an additional district court was created in 1875. The lower courts in the territory included probate courts and justices of the peace.

The state court system authorized by the North Dakota Constitution in 1889 consisted of a Chief Justice and three justices elected to six-year terms, and the establishment of district courts in the state. The number of Supreme Court justices was increased to five in 1915 and the length of terms was extended to ten years in 1929. The number of judicial districts increased to twelve by 1911; however, legislation in 1919 pared the number of judicial districts back down to six. Currently North Dakota has seven district courts that are under the authority of the Supreme Court. The district courts have original jurisdiction in all cases and have appellate jurisdiction over most cases originating in lower courts.

Approval of a constitutional amendment in 1976 began the establishment of an unified judicial system in North Dakota (S.L. 1977, Ch. 599). The unified judicial system model defined the hierarchical, jurisdictional, and appellate relationships between the Supreme Court, District Courts, County Courts, and Municipal Courts; reformed the county court system; defined the qualifications for judges; and empowered the Supreme Court to serve as the source of guidance and direction for lower courts in the state. The constitutional amendment also required creation of a Judicial Nominating Committee to nominate candidates to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court or any of the District Courts. Appointments to fill vacated positions are made by the Governor from the list of nominees provided by the Judicial Nominating Committee. A bill creating a Judicial Nominating Committee was vetoed in 1979. A Judicial Nominating Committee was, however, established in 1981 (S.L. 1981, Ch. 330) consisting of two members appointed by the Governor, two appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and two appointed by the State Bar Association. Further reform of the state's judicial system, including state financing of the district court system, establishment of guidelines for administration of inferior courts by the Supreme Court, and modification of the county court system, continued during the 1981 and 1983 Legislative Sessions.

The North Dakota Supreme Court is the highest court for the state. It has two major types of responsibilities: adjudicative and administrative.

In its adjudicative capacity, the Supreme Court is primarily an appellate court with jurisdiction to hear appeals from decisions of the district courts. All appeals from these courts must be accepted for review. In addition, the court also has original jurisdiction in matters, such as certain habeas corpus cases and decisions of the secretary of state in the petition process, and can issue such original and remedial writs as are necessary to exercise this authority.

The state constitution requires a quorum, composed of a majority of the justices, is necessary before the court can conduct its judicial business. It also stipulates the court cannot declare a legislative enactment unconstitutional unless four of the justices so decide. When the court decides an appeal it is required to issue a written opinion stating the rationale for its decision. Any justice disagreeing with the majority decision may issue a dissenting opinion that explains the reasons for the disagreement with the majority.

In its administrative capacity, the Supreme Court has major responsibilities for ensuring the efficient and effective operation of all courts in the state except federal and tribal courts; maintaining high standards of judicial conduct; supervising the legal profession; and promulgating procedural rules that allow for the orderly and efficient transaction of judicial business. Within each area of administrative responsibility, the court has general rulemaking authority.

The court carries out its administrative responsibilities with the assistance of various committees and boards. It exercises authority to admit and license attorneys through the State Board of Law Examiners. Supervision of legal ethics is exercised through the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court and supervision of judicial conduct is exercised through the Judicial Conduct Commission, Continuing review and study of specific subject areas within its administrative jurisdictions are provided through five advisory committees: the Joint Committee on Attorney Standards, the Judiciary Standards Committee, the Court Services Administration Committee, and the Judicial Planning Committee. Other committees, such as the Continuing Judicial Education Commission, Personnel Policy Board, and the North Dakota Legal Counsel for Indigents Commission also provide valuable assistance to the Supreme Court in important administrative areas.

Administrative personnel of the Supreme Court also play a vital role in helping the court fulfill its administrative functions. The clerk of the Supreme Court supervises the calendaring and assignment of cases, oversees the distribution and publication of opinions and administrative rules and orders, and decides certain procedural motions files with the court. The state law librarian supervises the operation of the state law library.

Record Series

30488 Correspondence of the Court Reporter and Law Librarian.          
30489 Case Files.
30686 Minutes of the Judicial Planning Committee.
31501 Professional Conduct Study Subcommittee Records.
31744 Deputy Administrator's Records.
31852 Reports of poor relief, poor farms, and mother's pensions.
32192 Case Files.

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