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Western N.D. legal cases spilling into Grand Forks

By Steve Lee 

Rising crime in western North Dakota is spilling into the federal courthouse in Grand Forks, adding to the workload of the U.S. magistrate judge here, according to court officials.

Since September, for example, Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal has handled all the immigration proceedings from the west at the Grand Forks courthouse.

Judge Ralph Erickson, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for North Dakota, said the district’s overall work load has been increasing, up 30 percent over the past year alone, largely due to more activity in the west.

One of the “stop-gap” measures the court put in place has been shifting some hearings from the west side — court rooms in Minot and Bismarck — to Fargo and Grand Forks, Erickson said.

Senechal, who is up for re-appointment this year to her seventh term, was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment.

Case load up

Last year Senechal issued 26 search warrants, five arrest warrants, conducted 88 initial appearances and presided over 26 detention hearings and 43 arraignments plus some miscellaneous matters, for a total of 194 preliminary proceedings in felony matters, according to.

In 2009, those proceedings totaled 154, including 15 search warrants, 11 arrest warrants, 84 initial appearances, 12 detention hearings, 32 arraignments and a few miscellaneous procedures.

The immigration proceedings Senechal gets from out west “accounts for a good portion of the increase,” Knudson said.

Limited powers

Magistrate judges, unlike federal district judges, are not appointed for life by the president. Instead, full-time magistrate judges get eight-year terms and part-timers get four-year terms.

At one time, the magistrate judge in Grand Forks was a half-time job, but now it’s about one-fifth of full-time, court officials said. It’s the only part-time magistrate judgeship in the state.

Magistrate judges also have limited powers; they can’t preside over felony trials or sentence felony defendants. They conduct most preliminary proceedings in criminal cases, try and dispose of misdemeanor cases and conduct other pre-trial matters and evidentiary proceedings as directed by a district judge.

Their work, by its nature, often comes up quickly: federal agents need a search warrant, or an arrested person must quickly have a court hearing, usually to decide if there’s good reason to keep the person in custody on the charge.

While not disposing of felony cases, magistrate judges do decide on misdemeanor cases which can be significant.

In 2009, for example, Senechal ordered Alvin Peterson, 78, and a Lawton, N.D., farmer, to pay a $10,000 fine and serve five years probation for a misdemeanor offense of draining a federally-protected wetland.

Last week in a felony case, Senechal presided over the arraignment of a Minnesota woman charged with conspiring with four others to deal methamphetamine. Senechal told the woman she faced not only a possible sentence of life in prison, but a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years if convicted.


As a part-time magistrate judge, Senechal is allowed to practice law. A partner in the Robert Vogel law firm just a half-block from the Grand Forks federal courthouse, Senechal specializes in medical malpractice and personal injury cases. She’s a Rugby native who graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1984.

Given her status as magistrate judge and her part-time work, she earns roughly 18 percent of a district judge’s salary of $199,100.

Erickson has appointed a panel to consider her re-appointment and seeking public comment between now and April 1.

“We have asked that position be filled and asked that Alice be considered for re-appointment,” he said. “She’s been there a long time and done a great job.”

To offer public comment: email ndd-public@ndd.uscourts.gov or to send mail to Clerk of Court, P.O. Box 1193, Bismarck, ND 58502-1193 by April 1.

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