- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - On Dec. 29, the Hon. David Nelson, Northwest Judicial District Court judge, was in a courtroom, like he has been for most of the last 35 years, but this time he wasn’t sitting on the bench.

In a packed courtroom on the third floor of the Williams County Courthouse, Nelson was in the spectators’ gallery to celebrate his retirement. First elected a District Court judge in 1995, he spent the 10 years before that as a Williston Municipal Court judge and before that was a lawyer in private practice.

After 21 years on the bench, Nelson announced this summer that he was hanging up his judge’s robes and laying down his gavel, at least for the most part.

He’s now certified as a surrogate judge, and so will be asked to hear cases from time to time. There are 12 surrogates statewide, though, so he said he doesn’t expect to be working too hard.

That will be a change of pace. Speaker after speaker stood and told the audience how Nelson had impacted their lives and their careers.

Williston attorney Jeff Nehring gave an emotion filled speech where he credited Nelson with making him want to be a lawyer in the first place.

When Nelson was still a Municipal Court judge, Nehring was a 17-year-old who’d gotten a traffic citation. He impulsively decided to fight the ticket and ended up in front of Nelson.

Nehring said he had no idea what he was doing, and Nelson found him guilty, though he did reduce the fine from $30 to $10.

Even though Nehring lost, his interest was piqued and said the experience was part of why he went to law school.

And after practicing in front of Nelson for decades, he’s still learned things.

“He’s made us all better lawyers,” Nehring said.

As he choked back tears, Nehring gave a final tribute to Nelson and his career.

“It’s every person’s dream when they start a job to leave that job in a better place than they found it,” he said. “Judge Nelson has done that. I want to thank you for your service to the community.”

A stream of current and former judges, court personnel and attorneys painted a picture of a man who cared deeply about the way justice was administered and who was equally at home talking about the design and construction of courtrooms as he was talking about history or Icelandic sagas.

Nelson was instrumental in the renovation of the courthouse, a project that included the renovation of two courtrooms and the addition of three more, the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/2hJQQtm ) reported. As he stood in courtroom 301, where the celebration was taking place, he looked at the bright overhead lights and electronics, things that he helped bring about.

“When I started, the only electronics in this courtroom was a P.A. system that didn’t work,” he said.

While he’s done hearing cases regularly, Nelson isn’t disappearing. He has one final sentencing hearing scheduled for Jan. 30, and he’ll be a surrogate judge, as well.

But even if he doesn’t sit on the bench very often, he isn’t going to be leaving Williston - he was born here in 1951, and he and his wife, Sherri, live next door to one of their sons and their two grandchildren.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

___

Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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