The hundreds of arrests during the months of protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota have created a huge burden for the state’s court system, which now faces excessive cost overruns, because they don’t have enough judges, lawyers and clerks to handle the extra workload.
Police have made almost 575 arrests since August during clashes at the protesters’ main camp along the pipeline route in southern North Dakota and at protests in and around the state capital, Bismarck, about 50 miles to the north.
That’s way more arrests than these areas usually have to deal with and it will probably lead to delays in bringing cases to trial, experts say.
The standoff doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon, with protesters promising on Tuesday that they are staying at the camp regardless of an evacuation order from North Dakota’s governor.
Not enough judges, or money
“We don’t have sufficient judges to get all of those cases heard in a timely fashion,” said Sally Holewa, North Dakota’s state court administrator.
The state judicial system will ask the Legislature next year for an additional $1.5 million to cover protest-related costs. That amounts to about 1.5% of its current two-year budget.
“This is a first,” Holewa said. “The judicial branch has never had to ask for a deficiency appropriation in its history,” which dates back more than a century.
The protest-related cases also are putting a pinch on the organization that provides public defenders in North Dakota. The Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents might seek an additional $670,000 from the Legislature, which amounts to about 3.5% of its current two-year budget, according to its executive director, H. Jean Delaney.
The commission has taken on more than 225 protest-related cases. Theses are being handled by 65 defense attorneys, and the commission is seeking seven more.
South Central District Court, where the cases are being handled, didn’t immediately have data on the total number of cases or any backlogs. However, Holewa said the sheer volume of cases raises concerns about the defendants’ right to a speedy trial and due process.
“Any time justice is unduly delayed, it causes issues,” she said. “You have issues with people’s memories, and (in this case) you also have people from out of state – not just those charged, but also police officers from out of state. All of that makes it essential that we try to get these cases heard timely.”
Fewer than 8% of the protesters who have been arrested are from North Dakota, according to data from the Morton County Sheriff’s Office. Nearly one-fourth are from the West Coast.
Most of the cases are being handled in state court. However, the federal court system apparently is also feeling the impact. In court documents requesting a delay in an unconnected case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Delorme told the judge that protests were “consuming significant time and attention.”
U.S. Attorney Chris Myers wouldn’t say how many cases the federal court system is dealing with. But at least one high-profile case involving a Denver woman who was accused of firing shots at the police during a protest clash, was recently transferred from state court to federal court.
Meanwhile, several pipeline protesters are suing Morton County, the city of Mandan and North Dakota law enforcement officials in federal court, saying their civil rights were violated during a clash with officials earlier this month.
Authorities have said their use of rubber bullets, tear gas and water spray was needed to maintain some kind of order. It’s not known how much the lawsuit is looking for in damages.