JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Herb Meschke: A Brilliant Mind In A Broken Body

They’ll bury Herb Meschke later this week. I don’t know if it will be in the North Dakota Bad Lands, where he was born and raised, or in Minot, where he spent most of his life. Wherever it is, his presence will enhance the stature of the cemetery.

Herb Meschke
Herb Meschke

Herb was a cowboy, a lawyer, a legislator, a judge and a family man. He took all of those jobs seriously. And he was pretty good at them.

He died at home Friday. There’ll be a Methodist funeral for him Wednesday. His death marks the end of a life at the center of some of North Dakota’s most interesting political stories. I’m going to tell a couple. First, some background. I like revisiting old political stories, and Herb’s death gives me the opportunity to do that. I think he’d approve.

Because most people who knew Herb in the past 65 or 70 years of his remarkable 89-year life never saw him wearing anything but a suit and tie or a judicial robe, they don’t know about his cowboy background. He was born on a ranch north of Medora, N.D., and according to those who knew him, was a strapping young cowboy when he went off to college in the late 1940s.

It was sometime during his college or law school years, friends tell me, he was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis. Most of us who knew him as an adult never saw him stand erect. He walked hunched over, having to turn his head slightly to look up when he was having a standing conversation. That’s how we all remember him, short, hunched over, walking with a cane. All his adult life. Gary Williamson, his seatmate in the 1965 Legislature, said Herb kept a bottle of aspirin on his desk and would just pop a handful into his mouth from time to time to ease the pain of the arthritis.

That 1965 session was the beginning of one of the political stories of his life. In the 1964 election, the Johnson landslide, the last time a Democrat presidential candidate carried North Dakota, Herb, Gary and three other Young Turk Democrats — Larry Erickson, Bob Schoenwald and Wayne Sanstead — rode that landslide into the Legislature, defeating all the Republican incumbents except the venerable (even then) Brynhild Haugland.

According to Williamson, they arrived in Bismarck as “Brynhild’s Boys.” She was in charge of the Minot delegation from Day 1, determined not to let Minot suffer because it was represented by five young freshmen (even though the Democrats were in the majority). She found them seats, got them committee assignments beneficial to Minot and probably directed to some extent how they voted on the floor.

That was one of only two legislative sessions Democrats were the majority party. It’s fun to look at the list of House members that session whose names you might remember, in addition to Sanstead, who held statewide office longer than almost anyone in our state’s history (Can you say Ben Meier?), and Meschke, a Supreme Court justice for almost 15 years. It included Richard Backes, Lee Christensen, Oscar Solberg, Buckshot Hoffner, Treadwell Haugen, Tom Stallman, Clarence “Chief” Poling and Art Link, who was speaker of the House that session. Most of them were just getting their start on distinguished political careers in North Dakota.

An interesting side note: The only two years Democrats held the majority of seats in the North Dakota House, in 1965 and 1983, five men served in both those sessions: Sanstead, Backes, Hoffner, Solberg and Olaf Opedahl. The House was tied in the 1977 session, and Solberg served as Speaker by consensus of both parties, showing the respect he had from Republicans. In the days when Republicans and Democrats actually got along. Sigh.

But back to Herb Meschke. Herb served just that one term in the House (House terms were just two years back then) and the next year, he ran for and was elected to the state Senate. Only four Democrats were elected to the Senate that year, and they joined holdover George Rait as the smallest Democratic-NPL caucus ever (although modern day Democrats are headed that way, to challenge them — there were just nine this year).

Williamson and Sanstead were re-elected to the House, and after serving in the majority in 1965, were among just 14 Democratic-NPL House members out of 99 representatives that session. Democrats eclipsed that record this past session with just 13 out of 94.

Herb’s other memorable role was in January 1985, the time when North Dakota had two governors. I wrote about that a few years ago, and you can go back and read it if you want to by clicking here. But let me summarize and point out that I’ve actually learned (actually, remembered) a little more about that incident in the last few years since I wrote that post.

Sinner was elected governor in the November 1984 election. In those days governors legally took office Jan. 1, but traditionally waited until the first day of the Legislature, which was the first Tuesday after the first Monday of January. In 1985, that was Jan. 8. After this crisis, the Legislature changed the date of the new term to Dec. 15.

Between the tine of the election and Jan. 1, two vacancies occurred on the North Dakota Supreme Court — a justice died and another announced he was about to resign, which meant the governor got to appoint two Supreme Court Justices, surely plum appointments for any governor. Per North Dakota law, a Judicial Nominating Committee advertised for applicants, and receiving them, announced it would recommend candidates for the governor to choose from, on Jan. 4—whomever the governor was that day.

So Allen Olson, who had decided to stick around until the Legislature convened Jan. 8, as tradition held, was going to make two appointments before he left office. Sinner decided not to let that happen. Since legally he was entitled to take office Jan. 1, according to an opinion issued by Olson a few years earlier when he was attorney general, he did just that.

Olson objected and hunkered down in his office and refused to leave, now claiming that he could, by tradition, remain in office until the Legislature came to town. Sinner set up shop in the governor’s residence — remember, Olson had decided not to live there, remaining in his own house high atop a hill in north Bismarck, something a lot of people viewed as arrogance, probably contributing some to his defeat by Sinner.

So we had two governors for a few days, until the new attorney general, Nick Spaeth, convinced the Supreme Court to take the case immediately and decide who the governor was, and in a matter of hours, the court decided Sinner was entitled to the office. Note that all of the sitting justices except the chief justice recused themselves, and Chief Justice Ralph Erickstad appointed four district court judges and told them to get their tails to Bismarck and hear the case. So it was those four men — Maurice Hunke of Dickinson, A.C. Bakken of Grand Forks, Norman Backes of Fargo and  Benny Graf of Bismarck, who held the fate of the next two Supreme Court Justices in their hands.

Interestingly, Erickstad, a known Republican (he had served three sessions in the North Dakota Senate as a Republican before being elected to the court) appointed three pretty well-known Democrats — Bakken, Backes and Graf — to decide who the governor was, and who would make the next two Supreme Court appointments. And they chose Sinner, the Democrat. It really was a question of law, though, not politics, so there was nothing untoward in their decision, that I can tell.

I think Olson really didn’t want that confrontation, or to have his term in office end that way, but there must have been tremendous pressure on him from some in the Republican Party to claim those two Supreme Court seats. Rumors have floated around for years, but I’ve never been able to confirm them, so I won’t repeat them. I’m sure Mark Andrews would appreciate that.

There were known Republicans — Ward Kirby of Dickinson, Vern Neff of Williston and Rolf Sletten of Bismarck — on the Judicial Nominating Committee list submitted to Sinner, and some known Democrats — Herb Meschke and Jim Maxson of Minot and J. Philip Johnson of Fargo, and two suspected Democrats, Bill Neumann of Rugby and  Beryl Levine of Fargo.

Sinner chose Meschke and Levine. He and most North Dakota Democrats, probably would have liked to appoint Meschke and Maxson, but he just couldn’t appoint two from the same town. And he just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to appoint the first woman ever to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

That he chose Meschke over Maxson probably had something to do with a little leaning from Meschke’s old colleagues in the 1965 Legislature, Richard Backes and Larry Erickson, both of whom were close to Sinner and had helped in the Minot area on his campaign, and the fact Sinner had served across the hall in the state Senate from Meschke, and his House colleagues that session, Erickson, Backes, Williamson, Schoenwald and Sanstead. Meschke and Sinner also served together as delegates to the ill-fated 1972 North Dakota Constitutional Convention.

Maxson went on to his own political career, being elected to the state Senate in 1986 and again in 1990. He holds the distinction of being the only Democrat to serve four sessions in the North Dakota Legislature and never serve in the minority. Democrats had a majority in the Senate in 1987, ’89, ’91 and ’93 in 1994 (Yes, North Dakota Democrats, there once was a time, and a place called Camelot). In 1994, Maxson went back to Minot to resume his law practice full time.

Johnson and Neuman, by the way, did end up on the Supreme Court later, but no such luck for the three Republicans.

Herb’s appointment to the court in January was the subject of some controversy. Some Republicans dragged out old newspaper stories from the 1960s First Western Bank scandal, in which most of the Democratic-NPL crew from that 1965 legislative session — Backes, Erickson, Williamson and Meschke — were indicted for some alleged banking and campaign practice crimes.

Wanting to keep up with the Republicans in the financial world, they had started their own bank in Minot and were accused by Nixon-era prosecutors of playing a little fast and loose with banking and campaign regulations. All, including Meschke, their lawyer, were either acquitted or had charges dropped, but it sullied Meschke’s entrance into the judiciary. First Western Bank, ironically, is now owned by North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven.

Herb was elected to a four-year term on the Court in 1986 and a full 10-year term in 1990, took early retirement in 1999, moved back to Minot and practiced law a little bit and did some writing. The last time I saw him was at Gov. Bill Guy’s funeral a few years ago. He was still this hunched-over little man, a brilliant mind trapped in broken body.

I loved that little man, mostly from afar, because of what he accomplished in spite of his physical handicap and the lifetime of pain he tolerated to be an active part of North Dakota history. And also partly because he was wise enough to marry a girl from my hometown, Shirley McNeil from Hettinger, N.D. Shirley survives him.  She spent a lifetime taking care of Herb. God bless her. I wish her all the best in the rest of her years.

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