Tom Gunderson is a jovial fellow. Always quick with a smile and kind word, it's hard to believe such a good-spirited person would make a living out of conflict. But for 36 years, he's done just that.
Gunderson is an attorney with the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents in short, the public defender's office. And while his legal career has landed him in Minot at this stage, it certainly hasn't been limited to the Magic City.
From small-town beginnings to the service, to the West Coast and back, Gunderson's journey has been an interesting one.
Dave Caldwell/MDN •
Minot attorney Tom Gunderson stops Wednesday outside the Ward County Courthouse in Minot. Gunderson, who has been practicing law for 36 years, said he enjoys working with the public defender’s office in Minot.
"I'm from Turtle Lake," said Gunderson Wednesday afternoon. "I was born there, raised there and went to high school there."
Gunderson said he went into the Army right after high school and enrolled in college in Minot after getting out.
"I went for one year, then I had an auto accident and I ended up going to California," he said. "I was working in factories and I said, 'Hey, I don't like this factory work,' so I went back to school and got a history degree.
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"It wasn't too useful so I ended up going to law school."
Gunderson attended the University of North Dakota School of Law, where he graduated in 1972.
"I've been in practice since then," Gunderson said. "I started out in Dickinson and worked there for a few years with the Greenwood firm. Then I went up to New Town and worked for legal services for a few years. Then I went to Bismarck.
"While I was in Bismarck, I did work down in Fort Yates as a tribal judge for about two years or so."
From there, it was return trips to Dickinson and New Town, he said.
"Then I came here," Gunderson said.
Gunderson said that he has done "a little bit of everything" in his career, but for the past 15 or 20 years it's mainly been criminal law.
"I worked a lot on the reservation Fort Berthold which I really enjoyed," he said. "Then this job opened up, and I took it."
Gunderson said that thus far he likes his position.
"I like doing criminal work," he said. "What I like about the public defender is, you do your job. If the clients don't like what you're doing, they're free to hire someone else if they want to. You're not just working for them because they pay you a fee, but rather you're there to see that you do the best that you can for their case.
"I mean, all attorneys do the best that they can. I'm just saying that with doing this, I can be pretty honest with them. If they don't like what they hear, they're always free to find another attorney. Just like I tell people, when you go to the doctor, if you don't like what you hear, get a second opinion."
Gunderson said he's careful not to push people one way or another as far as taking plea offers.
"We don't force them to take anything," he said. "I never do. I always tell them, 'This is what the offer is.' If you want to take it, you can take it. If you don't, we can go to trial, or we can ask for a counteroffer. But I never, ever force them to take a plea agreement. That's their decision."
Gunderson said there are times when a client will accept an agreement he wished they wouldn't have.
"But if you tell them not to take it, and you go to trial and the verdict comes out guilty, you go home," he said. "Your poor client, he may go to jail. It's his life.
"I don't like to sit there a play God with them.
"I'm just up front with them. I don't make them any promises, I just tell them I'll do the best I can. I don't claim to be the best or anything else. The only commitment I can make is to do my best whatever it may be."
One thing Gunderson said he would like to see is an increased treatment aspect for offenders. An adult drug court for Minot has been discussed for some time, something he feels would only help.
"We spend a lot of time and money jailing people for some of these things that should be treated," he said. "Some of these people get arrested for drugs and it stays with them. It goes on their resumes, they can't get jobs, they can't get housing.
"It seems like there should be a better way of dealing with these things."
Gunderson said he enjoys the Minot area, especially his colleagues.
"I like the other attorneys," he said. "There's a good bar (association) here. They're easy to get along with. We have a good working relationship with the state's attorney's office here.
"We fight hard in court, but yet the animosity ends at the courthouse door. We don't carry it with us, we don't have a grudge. It's a very professional relationship in court."
Gunderson said he's learned in his career that people can't be judged by what they're accused of.
"One thing I've learned is that no matter who people are, once you get to know them there's usually a likeable part," he said. "You don't know them, but you hear about what they did and you really get turned off by them. But once you get to know them, you see some redeeming value.
"They have flaws like all of us do."
Gunderson says that today's society seems to him to be getting more and more harsh not just toward criminals, but on the street. He illustrates his thoughts by utilizing a quote from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice."
"'The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.'
"I think there's a lot of truth to that. But at the same time, people that do harsh crimes should get the (harsh) sentence."
"People like to say, 'An eye for an eye,'" Gunderson said. "From what I was told, that's a limitation. It wasn't supposed to go further than what fit the crime."