Federal bankruptcy judge in N.D. retiresAfter 28 years as North Dakota’s U.S. bankruptcy judge, William Hill has hung up his robes and embraced retirement. Hill, who was appointed to the bench in 1983, marked his last day on Friday.
By: By Kristen M. Daum, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — After 28 years as North Dakota’s U.S. bankruptcy judge, William Hill has hung up his robes and embraced retirement.
Hill, who was appointed to the bench in 1983, marked his last day on Friday.
“When I look back now, I’m surprised I survived,” Hill joked Monday while sitting in his former courtroom. “The trick is to know when it’s time to retire and not be here to the point where you’re irrelevant.”
After decades of mining one of the most complex branches of law, Hill admitted it wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be to say goodbye.
“I’ve spent so much time traveling over the years, not just in district but all over the country,” he said. “I’ve tried many hard cases, and I’m just ready to be done.”
Still, Hill said he hoped he brought stability through his decades behind the bench, during which he ruled on numerous cases.
The Grand Forks native earned a law degree from the University of North Dakota in 1971, before filling a vacancy as North Dakota’s deputy secretary of state for about nine months.
Hill said he gladly resigned that post when former North Dakota U.S. District Court Judge Paul Benson sought a law clerk.
After a quick interview, “I wound up his law clerk for a two-year term,” Hill said. “I admired him greatly.”
After his stint in the courthouse, Hill worked in a Fargo law practice for nearly a decade, becoming a partner after just two years.
But life diverted Hill back to the courthouse, this time with a seat behind the bench.
In 1975, Benson appointed Hill to be a part-time U.S. magistrate judge for North Dakota, where he worked on federal criminal cases he was assigned.
Eight years later, Hill took on the additional role of assisting North Dakota U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Harold Bullis, who was fighting terminal cancer.
Hill didn’t expect then he’d spend the next 28 years behind that bench.
Bullis died barely a month after Hill was brought on board in the fall of 1983. Hill’s judicial appointment as Bullis’ replacement was made permanent.
The U.S. Constitution calls for a special federal court to handle all bankruptcies across the nation. A judge is appointed to serve from each of 93 judicial districts.
Hill said the job initially was overwhelming.
“I quickly discovered that Judge Bullis had not been able to handle the cases because he was so sick,” Hill recalled. “There was a terrible, terrible overload – stacks of cases piled 3-feet deep.”
The job also required endless travel because Hill assisted with major cases in Denver, Miami, Iowa and elsewhere at times when those areas faced economic turmoil.
“We were so incredibly busy I didn’t have any time to think,” he said.
Hill said the obligatory travel diminished over time as society shifted from paper to paperless.
The digital age has marked the most obvious shift over Hill’s career.
In the beginning, “it was all paper, written out long form,” he said. “No computers, no cellphones, no nothing —– and somehow we got it all done, and I’m convinced the quality was better.”
Hill said the convenience of technology has the potential to dilute the legal process, almost demanding quicker judgments and inviting more settlements than courtroom trials.
“I still think that quality decisions require slow and deliberate consideration,” Hill said.
As he enters retirement, Hill said he’ll miss the people the most.
“I’ve always tried to be respectful of the attorneys and the debtors involved — keeping in mind this will most likely be the first and last time they’ll be directly involved with a courtroom,” Hill said. “I always tried to keep in mind that they do not necessarily understand what bankruptcy is about and that they’re scared to death.”
With how complicated bankruptcy law is, Hill makes his exit with learned advice: “Do not get into bankruptcy casually.”
“Chapter 13 (dealing with individual debt) is deceptive. It’s much more complex than you’d think,” Hill said. “Tread carefully.”
Kristen M. Daum is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.