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Paulson retires after 33 years on the bench

John M. Steiner/ The Sun John T. “Jack” Paulson, retired Southeast District Court judge, reflects on his law career Tuesday in his historic Valley City, N.D., home.

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Southeast Judicial District Judge John T. “Jack” Paulson, the longest serving state judge in North Dakota’s history, retired on June 3.

Paulson, 71, a lifelong resident of Valley City, will now serve as a surrogate judge, picking and choosing any unassigned case in the state.

Paulson took his seat on the nine-county district bench in 1980. He carried all but one county in that election against incumbent C. James Cieminski, losing his home county of Barnes by 506 votes. Prior to 1980, Paulson spent 10 years as Barnes County state’s attorney and two years as Valley City municipal judge.

Paulson graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1967. As a third-generation attorney, he took over his family’s law practice with brother-in-law Mikal Simonson, who also served as a district judge from 1994 to 2010. Paulson’s father, William, was Barnes County state’s attorney for 16 non-consecutive years and sat on the state Supreme Court for 16 years.

“I think I was kind of pushed that way through my family,” Paulson said, adding that he would have probably become a minister if he hadn’t gone into law. “My grandfather was a lawyer; my dad was a lawyer; so it was kind of a progression.”

33 years on the bench

One of the most notable cases Paulson presided over was the murder trial of former Barnes County jailer Moe Gibbs, who was convicted in the 2006 slaying of Valley City State University student Mindy Morgenstern. While Paulson said that case was one of the more reprehensible ones he saw. The worst case brought before him was a series of child abuse allegations against a Ransom County couple who eventually had their parental rights terminated in the early ’80s.

“It was appealed to the Supreme Court a couple of times and I was affirmed, but that was a ‘spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child’ type of case,” he said. “The parents were particularly abusive to their children if they didn’t mind them; they’d hit them with spoons and rods and things like that, and the kids would be black and blue. We must have had three or four hearings before we finally tried to terminate the parental rights. The ultimate goal of Social Services was to try and unite the children with their parents and no matter what we did with these parents …”

Paulson said most of the defendants he’s seen over the years are consistently between 18 and 30 years old. While he still often presides over “routine burglaries and thefts,” his caseload is higher now and there has been an increase in drug and drug paraphernalia possession.

“There’s this big conflict going on: The younger generation tends to feel that marijuana is more ‘appropriate’ but we still have laws against it,” Paulson said. “Having it wide open in Colorado, and Oregon has very little penalty if any, so there’s this conflict. The older people see it as a criminal offense and ‘inappropriate,’ and the younger people don’t think anything of it.”

Paulson said he had a marijuana-possession defendant in court a few months ago who had lost a small bag of the drug on his walk home from a bar and called police to turn himself in and help police recover the bag.

“He didn’t want some kids to pick up the marijuana off the street,” he said. “They eventually went back and found it, and he as much told us —I think he was 28 or something —‘I’ve been using since I was 18 or 19 and I’m not going to quit.’ … and he comes in and he pleads guilty and takes his penalty.”

Paulson also recalled another possession case where a young female defendant said in court, “You’re not going to tell me what I can smoke and what I can’t smoke.”

“That happened years ago with a young lady who spent quite a bit of time in jail over it … (She was a) college graduate and fairly good student in college.”

Aside from possessions, burglaries and thefts, Paulson said very few career criminals were brought before him during his time as judge, with the rare exception of professional burglars.

“I had one down in Ellendale where he was a three- or four-time auto thief who went to the pen (North Dakota State Penitentiary),” he said. “Sentenced him to five years, he got out after three and a half or four for good behavior; a few days later he stole a vehicle. I decided then, he must have liked the penitentiary because he had not much chance of getting a job and that was a secure lifestyle for him.”

What’s next?

Paulson said he has been mulling over retirement since his wife, Bonita, quit teaching a few years ago.

“She hasn’t really pressured me a lot but my kids have kind of taken over for her and said ‘Dad, really you’ve got some life to enjoy yet, your health is still fairly good.’ I’ve got to get a knee replacement in July but my health is still fairly good and I’ve served a long time, so it’s time for somebody else to carry the torch.”

The state Judicial Nominating Committee is currently reviewing candidates to take over Paulson’s seat. Paulson said there about five people the committee was looking at and three will be recommended to Gov. Jack Dalrymple for appointment. For now, some cases in the Southeast District are on hold while others have been assigned to the district’s other six judges.

As for retirement, Paulson said he didn’t have any big plans other than to continue renovation on his 105-year-old house near VCSU in south Valley City. Paulson’s grandfather bought the house in 1913 and it has been in the family ever since.

“We’ve done some remodeling on our house; we’ve got some more to do. My wife has these projects for me,” he said.

Sun reporter David Luessen can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at