The Courthouse Cafe

Publish Date: 01/04/2018

Tom handles cases in almost every county in North Dakota.  Here is an article about The Courthouse Café in Williams County.  The article was published in the Fall 2017 edition of “The Gavel”, the official publication of the State Bar Association of North Dakota.

“People go to the jail just to eat here.”

So joked Ellen Harris; a retired grade school teacher who often takes her lunch at the Courthouse Cafe.  Tucked into a corner of the new addition of the Williams County Courthouse, is a quaintly reminder of a time when people ate lunch together, a time when people talked to each other, and a time when lawyers regularly broke bread together.  Yes Virginia, therewas a time when lawyers actually did all those things.  And at the Williams County Courthouse in Williston, North Dakota……….they still do.

The Bakken Oil Boom brought many changes to Williston.  Not the least of which was the new jail; more people, more crime, more incarcerations.  Physical space was in short supply and a new jail was needed.  The old courthouse had a nice little cafe tucked in the corner o

f the basement.  But that room was needed for another courtroom and besides, courthouse cafes went out with silent movies and Studebakers.  However, several county commissioners saw otherwise.  They insisted the new addition would have a courthouse cafe.

Dan Kalil, a Williams County Commissioner from 1992-2016, recognized the value and social purpose of the cafe.  Many a tense meeting

and negotiation were settled after a strategic coffee-break.

“We often called for a tactical recess when things got a little heated.  Coffee breaks can be more than just a cup of coffee.  It was amazing how many issues got resolved after a few minutes in that old cafe.  In North Dakota, everything happens in the cafe. Lots of problems get solved after a good meal.”

So, the decision was made the save the courthouse cafe and move it into the new addition.  It was a great move.  Thank you Williams County Commissioners.

The Courthouse Cafe opens at 7 am and serves the general public until 3 pm.  They often serve over 100 people a day.  They also cook and serve meals for 125 inmates.  The food is so good, many inmates write personal thank you notes …. handwritten thank you notes.

The lunch menu is excellent with wide variety of offerings including my personal favorite; the egg salad sandwich and home-made tomato soup.

But it’s the dessert menu that really catches your eye.

Don’t even ask about Ginny’s caked donuts. She only makes them a couple times a month and never puts them on the menu. Demand always exceeds supply.

There was a time when most county courthouses had cafes.  Grand Forks had one.  Cass County might still have one; not sure.    Mountrail County has pot luck on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Thursday of every month.  These are court dates and Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget organizes the menu.  Defense attorneys are welcome.  I try to arrive early before an afternoon hearing.

But the courthouse cafe like so many amenities which have sustained and nurtured our traditions and relationships have fallen by the wayside these past few years. It is a terrible loss.  Email, texting, fax machines, IVN, none of that technology works as well as meeting with your colleague over a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup, or a beer, and talking to each other about your case, about their family, or about the weather.   I recently saw an article that the people of Sardinia live longer than anyone else.  They attribute their longevity to the fact that they actually talk to each other a regular basis.

Last year, I was having lunch at a Bismarck cafe, when I walked by a table where a married couple (both lawyers) were having lunch together.  Of course, they weren’t talking to each other.   They were on their cell phones texting, emailing, or shopping, who knows?   I walked over, grabbed both phones and said:  “You can have them back when you leave.  Until then talk to each other.”

I gave the phones back before I left.  They were still talking to each other.

There is something being lost in our profession.  It is not the overwork.  We have always worked hard.  It is not the expense of running a law office.  It has always been expensive.  It is that we no longer just sit down and talk to each other.  It can be beneficial.  It can be interesting.  Hell, it can even be fun.  It might even make us better lawyers.

And so when I go to Williston on a criminal case, I call ahead to the Williams County State’s Attorney’s Office to book a lunch date with the State’s Attorney.  The Williams County State’s Attorney is Marlyce Wilder.  She is a tough adversary.  She is a respected colleague.  She is an honorable person.  She is my friend.

I have had so many cases in Williams County and made this call so many times that the receptionist Esmeralda doesn’t even ask what case I am calling about.  She just confirms that Marlyce will meet me at the Courthouse Cafe.  The last time, she also added:

“Tom, can you get here a little earlier today, Ginny made her donuts.  Always a big crowd.”