District Judge Laurie Fontaine is retiring from her role as judge on January 31, 2021, after 22 years in the position. She started her career as a lawyer in private practice in Pembina County and will come full circle to finish it.
“My son, Garret Fontaine, graduated from law school in 2020 and just became a licensed attorney in North Dakota,” explains Fontaine. “I had told him if he wanted to return to the area, I would retire from my judge position and help him get a practice going. I will be practicing law again with my son at Fontaine Law Office starting February of 2021.”
Fontaine received her teaching degree from Mayville University in 1978 with a major in Social Studies and a minor in psychology and sociology. She did not teach but rather started law school in 1980 at the UND School of Law. She passed the bar exam in 1983 and returned to Pembina County where she grew up. There, Fontaine was engaged in private practice with Wes Argue and individually for 15 years.
“I handled a variety of cases: estate planning, probate, civil litigation, family law, agriculture law, taxes as well as acting as city attorney for a couple cities in Pembina County,” said Fontaine. Notably, there were not many women lawyers in those days.
“When I first started in 1983,” shares Fontaine, “I was the first woman to have a law practice in Pembina County, the first woman to become State’s Attorney for Pembina County, and was the first woman elected to the position of District Judge in a rural area.” Fontaine worked hard in those early years to help get a domestic violence program in place in the area and had a goal to treat all people with fairness and respect.
“I have always had a motto that unless the law is applied equally to all people, how can anyone respect the law, and I have strived for that goal.” This core belief carried forward into her career as a judge.
“The role of the judge in simplest terms is a Gatekeeper of Justice,” said Fontaine. “It is our job as judges to do everything we can to make sure everyone, regardless of who they are, gets a fair and impartial consideration of their case. The legal system is here to provide a civilized resolution of disputes. I think our jury system is the best possible system, and I have always admired how, when you get citizens from all walks of life together, their collective wisdom usually comes to the correct outcome. Here in North Dakota, people take their civic duty as a juror very seriously.”
As a judge, Fontaine liked trying to resolve disputes between people and dealing with criminal cases in a way that still treated all participants with respect and courtesy. She also tried to explain things in a way everyone understood what was happening. Fontaine stated that the challenges of being a judge are many because every week you are faced with difficult decisions, and sometimes you do not have all the information you would like. It is not a judge’s role to go look for evidence so you have to make the decision based on what you have.
Fontaine has a lot of committee assignments to reflect back on in her career. She was chairperson for the legislative committee of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association; they put forth legislation they thought would be beneficial in the criminal law area. As a judge she was on a Jury Standards Committee that worked on issues surrounding jurors and their jury service. Fontaine was chair of a Court Improvement Committee which focused mainly on deprivation of children cases and how we, as a system, can improve our handling of those cases; every state has one of these, and this committee allowed her to attend a conference at the White House in Washington, DC. She was president of the North Dakota Judges Association in 2004-2005, the Presiding Judge for the Northeast Judicial District for 7 years from 2013 until 2019, and a member of the American Bar Association, Trial Lawyers Association, National Association of Women Judges, and the North Dakota Judges Association. Fontaine was also on a Joint Procedures Committee for 6 years, which discusses and approves all changes to the North Dakota Rules of Evidence, Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, and other rules which govern areas of the law; the rules are forwarded to the North Dakota Supreme Court for final approval by them.
“My favorite committees were the Joint Procedures,” said Fontaine, “because it is made up of lawyers and judges from across the state who focus on different areas of the law. When they all come together, everyone learns something, and we all benefit from the experience and knowledge of each other.”
Now retiring from her role as District Judge, Fontaine is looking forward to returning to private practice.
“I very much enjoyed practicing law for 15 years prior to becoming a judge, and I look forward to going back to it and helping people resolve legal issues,” she said.