To Gail Hagerty, nowhere feels like home more than a courtroom. She’s spent most of her life in a courtroom, first as an attorney, and for the past 28 years as a judge. It is a career path she credits to good timing.
“A big part of life is being in the right place at the right time, and then recognizing it,” says South Central Judge Gail Hagerty. “That has been a great gift to me.”
After graduating from the University of North Dakota Law School in 1978, Hagerty worked in the Attorney General’s office for a year and a half. While she enjoyed working for Al Olson, she says her heart was in the courtroom and she really wanted to be a prosecutor. So in 1980, she went to work for the Burleigh County State’s Attorney as an Assistant State’s Attorney. Two years later, she ran for and was elected Burleigh County State’s Attorney, a position she held until 1987.
“In 1987 they added a county judgeship in Burleigh County so I ran for that position and was a county judge for eight years,” recalls Hagerty. “Then I ran for district judge, and that’s where I have been since 1994. I never thought that 35 years later I’d still be working in the same building and parking in the same parking spot!
“I really enjoy being a judge. It is a challenging job and is definitely never boring,” says Hagerty. “Judges in North Dakota don’t specialize, which means we see different kinds of cases everyday. There are times we really get to help people or to resolve things that they just can’t resolve on their own. For a lot of people, coming to court is something they only do once or twice in their lives and it can be really terrifying. We get to, in a sense, help them through those situations. Sometimes they don’t get the results they want, but they will always get results. Often, when I sentence someone to prison they don’t see it as a helpful thing, but many people have come back and told me later that the sentence I gave them was exactly what they needed.”
Hagerty has five and a half years remaining on her current term. She says that means it is just about time to try something else.
“I am practicing saying, and trying to convince myself, that this is my last term of office,” she says. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m 62 years old so it makes sense in terms of age. “
But retirement won’t last long.
“When I retire from the bench, I’ll move on to my next calling.”
In fact, she’s already started working toward that calling. Hagerty is currently a serving as a Pastoral Minister at Grace Lutheran Church in Driscoll and she’s enrolled in Wartburg Theological Seminary, training for her next career as a pastor.
“It all makes sense to me,” she explains. “The Old Testament is more law and the New Testament is more gospel. So if you think of it from a career perspective, it works together. I feel like I have been preparing and moving toward this direction for a long time. It’s not a big shift in direction though. I look at it as more of a progression.”
Another similarity between her two career paths: both are traditionally male dominated careers.
“When I was starting out in the state’s attorney’s office there were just a handful of women state’s attorneys in the state and just a handful of women who were judges. And when I was in law school, women were in the minority. It was pretty unusual to see a woman in class, but now it’s very common that women make up at least half the class. We’ve seen the number of women increase in the courtroom as well over the years, and that’s very exciting.”
There have been other changes in her 28 years on the bench as well. Most recently, another judgeship was added in Bismarck, bringing the number of judges in the South Central Judicial District to nine. The district itself has changed too; a few years ago, three counties were moved to a different district, which has cut down on travel time for the judges, but not on workload. In fact, over the years, Hagerty has seen a steady increase in the number of cases that land on her desk.
“We have not only seen a change in the number of criminal cases we see, but also in the nature of those cases,” says Hagerty. “Addiction is the biggest issue we deal with; often the cases that come to us are the direct result of addiction, whether it’s alcohol or drugs. And the controlled substances are a stronger version of what they were 20 years ago, which means many of the people we see are more dangerous and more violent than those in the past. We’re seeing more people who are transient and that impacts not only criminal law, but also family law.”
Hagerty’s own family and her role as wife and mother have also helped shape her into the woman she is on the bench. Her three children (Jack, 25; Carrie, 21; and Anne, 19) and her husband (North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom) have encouraged her and inspired her in her job as a judge, as well in her preparation for her next career as a pastor. A career she plans to hold for many years, because she says, retirement just isn’t something her family does.
“My mother is 89 years old and still works full time, so I think I’ve got a few years left in me,” Hagerty says with a smile. Her mother is Marilyn Hagerty, the newspaper columnist for the Grand Forks Herald who became a household name after her 2012 review of that city’s new Olive Garden restaurant.
As for Gail, she is looking forward to the last few years of her time in the courtroom and hopeful she will soon feel as comfortable behind the pulpit as she is behind the bench.
“I will continue to do something. I think it’s really healthy to have something you want to do.”