WILLISTON, N.D. – Bob Martin borrows a quote from author J.R.R. Tolkien to describe his job as a public defender covering cases in the Oil Patch:
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Martin, supervising attorney for the Minot public defender’s office, has been driving to Williston at least two days a week since last spring to temporarily help with the caseload while the Williston office was going through some transitions.
Martin also handled cases in Watford City and Crosby, some weeks driving as many as 500 miles and putting in 12 or more hours a day.
The oil boom is putting a strain on the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, said executive director Robin Huseby.
“We’re primarily facing a shortage of attorneys who are willing or able to take cases out in the west, coupled with rapidly rising caseloads,” Huseby said.
One reason Martin has been filling in is because the previous supervising attorney for the Williston public defender’s office had to quit because she had a baby and couldn’t find child care for her infant.
“I just decided to leave,” said Katie Barber, who lives in Watford City. “I had no option.”
Martin primarily spends Mondays and Tuesday handling cases in the northwest and the remainder of the week based in Minot.
While the driving does wear on him, he uses it to think about his cases and what argument he’ll present.
“I’ll mull a lot of stuff over, still paying very close attention to the road of course,” Martin said. “That’s a matter of survival.”
The one downside to the traveling is that Martin aims to meet with clients in custody within the first 24 hours, and some days that’s not possible.
“There’s been an unavoidable drag in initial client contact,” Martin said.
Clients have been understanding, Martin said, as have the court staff in arranging hearings to fit his schedule.
Martin stopped taking new Oil Patch cases as of Aug. 15 and closed out his Watford City cases this month. He’ll follow through with his remaining Williston and Crosby cases and expects to primarily be based in Minot again after Nov. 30.
“Things have stabilized,” Martin said. “But we could definitely use more warm bodies out here.”
Huseby is seeking an additional $1.5 million from the Legislature next session to add one full-time attorney and four staff positions.
“We need to get ahead of this so we aren’t always playing catch up,” Huseby said.
The State Bar Association of North Dakota, which this month released a study on the energy impact on the justice system, is supporting the office’s request.
The Bar Association’s study also says a minimum of two judges are “desperately needed” in the Northwest Judicial District. It recommends adding four clerks in Williams County and additional clerks in Stark, Ward, Morton and Burleigh counties.
Martin said if he could have his wish list, he’d add a public defender to the Williston and Minot offices, additional clerks and three new judges for the northwest.
“We are meeting the burden. It is a burden, but we’re meeting it,” Martin said. “But we do need more resources.”