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Lawyers Challenge Delay of Civil Jury Trials

January 17, 1990

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) _ A judge’s money-saving move to delay jury trials in civil cases has been challenged by two attorneys who said their client may die while awaiting his day in court.

Judge James O’Keefe said Tuesday his decision to postpone such trials came as the North Dakota district court system tried to trim $1.5 million from its budget after voters rejected tax increases in a special election last month.

″We’re trying to slow down the civil trials,″ O’Keefe said. ″We just won’t have the money to pay for them.″

The move by O’Keefe, who is responsible for an 11-county judicial district, drew a challenge to the North Dakota Supreme Court from attorneys for an 80- year-old man with cancer.

The man, Bernhard Odden, filed a civil lawsuit in 1988 over a two-vehicle automobile accident that severely injured him and killed his wife in November 1986, court documents said.

The lawsuit names as defendants the driver of the other auto, David Paulseth, and Deutz-Allis Corp., which owned the car Paulseth was driving. Odden, from McHenry County about 100 miles north of Bismarck, was willing to accept a trial without a jury, but the defendants’ attorney, Donald Peterson, has declined to waive his client’s right to a jury trial.

The trial was scheduled for Jan. 29, but Odden’s lawyers, Michael Geiermann and Casey Chapman, were notified recently it was being delayed at least 18 months under O’Keefe’s policy.

Geiermann and Chapman want the state Supreme Court to order a trial for Odden, contending their client, who has prostate cancer, may die before his lawsuit is heard.

The judge in the lawsuit case, William Neumann, said the cost of a jury trial could force the firing of the district’s only juvenile probation officer.

″The district’s budget has required that the court choose betweenserving Mr. Odden or serving one-third of the children and youth in the Northeast District,″ Neumann said. ″The court has chosen the young people.″

Peterson described the delay as a temporary inconvenience.

″Nothing in the record indicates that he (Odden) is on his death bed,″ Peterson said. ″In no way is he being denied a jury trial, nor can it be said that he will suffer irreparable harm.″

State government overall has been struggling to cut $94 million from its two-year budget since voters rejected increases in state income, sales and motor fuels taxes in the special election Dec. 5,

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial and are not affected by O’Keefe’s policy.

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