Q&A: Catching up with North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle
North Dakota and country’s longest-serving justice talks getting into law, importance of maintaining relationships
Even beyond the legal realm, the name of Gerald VandeWalle is a familiar one. Chief Justice of North Dakota Supreme Court, VandeWalle strikes a revered figure in the state’s Capitol, where he has dedicated over six decades of his career – 20 years with the Attorney General’s office and 40 on the highest court in the state.
The longest-serving justice on the North Dakota Supreme Court, to which he has been re-elected four times since 1978, VandeWalle grew up in Noonan, N.D., where his immigrant Belgian father tended to a dairy farm.
Raised in a family and a community with the staunch values of hard work and education, VandeWalle’s life bears the devotion of a man who heeds a calling, a passion he ostensibly stumbled upon.
A business law course at the University of North Dakota, where VandeWalle received a bachelor’s diploma before graduating Suma Cum Laude from the Law School, awakened his legal vocation. After editing the North Dakota Law Review in his senior year, he assumed a position with the Attorney General at the urging of then Law Dean Olaf H. Thormodsgard, whose name the school’s library now carries.
Taking on the oil and gas cases in the office for the North Dakota Industrial Commission, VandeWalle rose to first assistant attorney general in 1975, a role he found hard to depart when an opening at the Supreme Court became available. A friend he played bridge with, however, prodded him to apply to complete an unfinished term. VandeWalle took the dare.
On Aug. 15, 1978, his birthday, Jerry, as many endearingly call him, became Justice VandeWalle. Some 15 years later, at the start of 1993, mere months before a reelection for another 10-year stretch on the court, he received the title of Chief Justice.
In the decades since, Chief Justice VandeWalle has not only tackled some of the most consequential issues in the state – and often in the country, he has nourished earnest ties with colleagues and ordinary citizens, alike.
A recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, North Dakota’s highest honor, VandeWalle has also kindly and keenly supported his alma mater – and his recent chat with UND Today reveals why the University claims such a special place in his heart.
You obtained a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and later a law degree from the University of North Dakota. Why UND?
I came from a very small high school of 50 kids, 10 kids in my graduating class. Three of us went to UND at the same time. I just wanted to go to a bigger school and see what it was like. No grand ideas. I knew I wanted to go to college and I just wanted to take on a larger school.
What was it like attending UND?
Certainly, it taught me a lot about relationships. I was born in a family with two boys. I learned a lot about relationships at UND and through the fraternity and the dormitory. Those things matter. That was an eye opener for me.
What fraternity are you an alum of?
Lambda Chi Alpha.
You are talking about relationships with others. Was that the most important lesson you learned at UND?
Obviously, in my classes, I learned a lot about law and commerce. But, in general, it would be that relationships with other people matter.
Do you have any memorable stories from your time at UND?
I have a lot of stories. Not sure where I would start. I did live in a men’s dorm, a freshman dorm. It was more like a military dorm the first year I was there. It was right east of the football stadium. There are a lot of lessons there that I learned about how to live with people in small quarters.
Did you have a favorite class at UND?
My favorite class was, crazy enough, a Spanish class. I took it my second year. I had never had a foreign language in the small high school I attended. It was a delightful experience. I knew I was not going to go into foreign language. I just enjoyed the class. As far as development is concerned, it would be a law class in my third year. That is when I finally decided, ‘Hey, I am going to go to law school. I love what I am doing with this business law class.’
I was an accounting major and while I didn’t dislike accounting, I was not thrilled by it. I had no business or law courses in high school. I knew very little about law. But once I got to the business law class… And, good instructors make all the difference in the world. I had a wonderful business law instructor. It just clicked.
Maybe my judgment grew a little bit. I mean, I was pretty immature when I started and we now know that your judgment develops as you grow older, even after you reach 18, 21 and even in the late 20s sometime. Maybe it was that. But I just knew that something clicked. I just knew that I liked taking an issue, looking at it and researching it and resolving it. That was what I did.
Since you graduated and went on to have a stellar career, you kept contributing and supporting the University. Why is it important to do so?
Everything I am and was is due to the University of North Dakota, so naturally I would support it. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the University.
What do you miss the most about your time at UND?
One of the things I miss most is being on campus and going to athletic events with my fraternity brothers. They were certainly impressive in their lives. I had a couple of younger fraternity brothers – Allen Olson, who became the North Dakota governor, and Bill Marcil, who was the publisher of the Fargo Forum. We were in the same fraternity at the same time and there are many others in that fraternity but those two are still living. These relationships are very important for me. They helped me grow. I don’t know if they realize that but they did. Those are all important things to me.
What advice would you give to current students?
Study hard. I would say they have to learn to study hard. I had to. High school came easy, college was a bit more difficult for me. Certainly, again, I would say improve your relationships with other people. I am not talking about romantic relationships, although those are obviously important too. Definitely, to live with other people and to be civil with other people. And, enjoy your time because it is a wonderful time. I stayed 7 years, I would have stayed another seven if I could.
What inspires you?
I learn every day. I know I am 85 years old and the day I think I know everything, I am out of here. I don’t think that day will ever come that I know everything. The challenge of learning every day keeps me going. Again, my relationships with my colleagues on the court are very important to me.
What are you most proud of?
I think, the opinions that I have written that maybe have an impact, not necessarily on people’s personal lives, but on general life. There are only a few of them that I would be able to think aloud about. But I am most proud of those. If they are cited and relied upon by other courts and other people, that makes me proud.
Are there any North Dakota Supreme Court opinions that are of particular importance to you?
There are a couple of them but I would prefer not to talk about them. They are really intensely personal to me. When I get in discussions with other people and they say, ‘This one is more important than that one.’ Well, maybe it is to you, but it is not to me.
What existential questions do you wish you had an answer to?
Again, it goes back to relationships. We have to learn to live with other people and other people have to learn to live with us. It is not a one-way street. It is a two-way street. I see the world becoming more divided than unified and that troubles me but maybe I am going old and sour. I don’t know. It just seems that it is more intense now. Maybe that is partly because there is always easy communication. People can communicate so well now and they are not using it for the best, sometimes in a negative way, and that troubles me. I am not talking about this country. I am talking about among and between countries just as well.