On tip-toe, Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle reached to a high shelf in his office to a picture frame that had tipped over.
He retrieved it and made a lighthearted comment about the photo it contained taken not too long ago of him and his first-grade teacher. He returned it to the shelf, and then noted another, this one of him and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
In a legal career spanning 60 years, there’s a lot to talk about.
On Aug. 15, VandeWalle met two milestones: his 85th birthday and 40 years on the North Dakota Supreme Court — a feat unmatched in the history of the state’s high court. In his time, he has won election five times and served with 16 justices, many of whom have come and gone.
But he remains.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do,” VandeWalle said. “As I sit, I live day to day … one day after the other, and I look right up and, wow, it’s been 40 years, and I’m this old … It’s been a pleasure, really, working up here.”
‘Friend and mentor’
Before he joined the court, VandeWalle worked for 20 years in the Attorney General’s Office, which he left as first assistant attorney general. That’s where he and retired Justice Dale Sandstrom met in 1975. They’ve been “good friends” since, Sandstrom said.
VandeWalle administered Sandstrom’s oath of office when Gov. Allen Olson appointed him to the Public Service Commission in 1983. Then Sandstrom served 24 years on the Supreme Court until retiring in 2016, sitting the entire time with VandeWalle as chief justice.
Sandstrom said on a court where justices don’t always agree, VandeWalle “could disagree without being disagreeable.” State Court Administrator Sally Holewa offered similar thoughts.
“He’s very patient but he’s no pushover,” she said. “Believe me, when he thinks he’s right, he’s very persistent.”
Retired Justice Carol Ronning Kapsner also goes back more than 40 years in her acquaintance with VandeWalle. She spent 19 years on the high court until 2017.
Kapsner said she respects VandeWalle more than anyone for his legal knowledge and “big picture” awareness of state and national legal issues, but also for keeping “the little picture” in mind in regard to people around him and how decisions affect them.
Kapsner and Sandstrom each said they believe VandeWalle has not yet retired as he loves his work. Sandstrom said his intellect and genes for longevity — VandeWalle’s mother died short of 103 — likely contribute.
Cathy Arneson, who has been VandeWalle’s judicial assistant since 2000, said she appreciates the chief’s personality and the family atmosphere he’s fostered in the workplace.
“I’ve always said to my husband, every time I say ‘Good night’ or ‘See you tomorrow,’ I don’t recall one night that (the chief) has not said, ‘Thank you, Cathy,'” Arneson said. “He’s just very grateful for everything a person does for him.”
Sandstrom also said VandeWalle was a “devoted son” who cared for his mother, Blanche, in her later years.
“Still, it’s an interesting question,” VandeWalle said of why he hasn’t retired. “I’m not sure I know the answer.”
Holewa, who has known VandeWalle since 2004, said one of her earliest experiences with the chief aptly describes his interactions with others.
During the 2005 legislative session, Holewa said VandeWalle was speaking with legislative leaders and other officials when he excused himself to see a House clerk.
“And he gives her a hug and he said, ‘Her husband recently died, and I couldn’t walk by without saying something to her,'” Holewa said. “To me, that says something about how in his eyes, everyone really is equal, and he genuinely cares about people.”
Kapsner noted VandeWalle’s “mischievous” streak and easy rapport with children when justices visit schools to discuss the judiciary and sit with students at different lunch tables.
“When the chief sits down with high school students, I think they immediately sense he’s kind of one of them,” she said.
Sandstrom said VandeWalle has deep roots in the state, from growing up on a dairy farm at Noonan in far northwestern North Dakota to his connections to people around the state. Kapsner said it’s “fun” to travel with him when he points out families and people he knows.
She also said his recollections extend to such a level that “he can pull a case out of his memory that the rest of us didn’t sit on—it might be 30 years old—and he will describe it, who decided it, who dissented on it.”
‘I tried to do the best I could’
Tony Weiler, executive director of the State Bar Association of North Dakota, said VandeWalle will likely be remembered for the depth of his public service.
“As I travel around the country and talk to other judges or justices or other bar leaders, his name is very well known because of the longevity,” he said. “The reputation he has as a really sound jurist comes from a lifetime of doing the job very well.”
Weiler said a generation could pass before another justice reaches VandeWalle’s number of years on the bench. Justice Daniel Crothers is the second most senior justice, at 13 years. Justices Lisa Fair McEvers, Jerod Tufte and Jon Jensen were each appointed or elected within the last five years–each with a breadth of legal experience in their own right.
VandeWalle doesn’t know what lies ahead for him. As he said, he takes things day to day.
He has his flower gardens and enjoys reading, watching sports and walking.
He treasures the Rough Rider Award he received in 2015, the state’s highest honor.
As for his legacy, VandeWalle said he hopes he isn’t remembered solely as “the guy that served the longest time.”
“I tried to do the best I could, and I may not have been the most brilliant guy around, but I did try,” he said.