A week-long "Governor Who?" crisis in which two men claimed to be North Dakota's governor while only one-fifth of the state's Supreme Court was available to choose between them ended tonight.

According to a legal decree, Democrat George Sinner holds the office he won in the general election Nov. 6.

A makeshift high court, whose members were chosen by lot, ordered Gov. Allen I. Olson (R) to vacate the office he had held since 1981. Minutes later, Olson complied.

The court acted on a request from state Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth, who compared North Dakota's plight to "a man living in bigamy" and asked the panel to "issue an injunction against whoever is not governor."

The strange dispute centered on a modern-day replay of the "Midnight Judges" dispute in 1801 when, just before leaving the presidency, John Adams made judicial appointments assailed by partisans of his successor, Thomas Jefferson.

Olson had wanted to stay in office long enough to fill two crucial state Supreme Court vacancies. Sinner had declared himself governor at the stroke of midnight New Year's Day so he could fill the vacancies.

As the squabble unfolded, Sinner and his family occupied the governor's mansion on the grounds of the state capitol, a gray concrete mass as stark as the snowy plain on which it stands.

Olson was entrenched in his capitol office, down the hall from the North Dakota Hall of Fame, a shrine featuring several illustrious natives including Eric Sevareid, Lawrence Welk, Peggy Lee and Clifford (Fido) Purpur, identified as "the first and only native North Dakotan to play with The National Hockey League."

North Dakotans said they were entertained and exasperated by their unprecedented constitutional contretemps. "It's funny, but it makes us all look like a bunch of dorks again," said Mary Pederson, a resident who came to the Supreme Court today to watch the confrontation.

Some state politicians said the argument about the governor's office also reflected rancor left from the bitter, personal campaign last year that peaked when newspapers reported that Olson had failed to file income-tax returns.

After Sinner's election victory over Olson with 55 percent of the vote, he received an official certificate of election from the secretary of state saying he would be governor "commencing on the first Monday in January 1985."

Had Sinner waited until next Monday to take office, Olson could have filled the two vacant Supreme Court slots. The appointments could not be made until a nominating committee completed its work this week.

Then Sinner and fellow Democrats gleefully unveiled a state legal opinion that a governor's term actually begins "the first day" of the year following his election.

As Sinner wryly noted, the opinion was authored by none other than Allen Olson, who had served as attorney general before he won the governorship.

All week, the two would-be chief executives exchanged increasingly sharp letters between the governor's mansion and the governor's office as to who was governor.

Then Spaeth, a Democrat and newly elected attorney general, asked the Supreme Court to settle the issue.

But, because of the vacancies and because some justices disqualified themselves, the high court was left with only one member to ponder the dispute. He quickly chose four lower-court judges at random, and they convened in emergency session this morning.

There, as lawyers involved the dispute argued the distinction between "term" and "tenure," the courtroom recording equipment went on the blink. Bayliff Elmer Dewald frantically pulled wires and unraveled cassettes to fix it as the disputants argued on, undeterred.

Olson's lawyer, Thomas Kelsch, noted that Olson had taken office Jan. 6, 1981, and was legally entitled to "a full four-year term, not three years and 360 days."

Sinner's lawyer, Malcolm Brown, contended that his client actually had been governor since New Year's Day, even though his formal inauguration is not until Tuesday.

After a long day of deliberation, the patchwork Supreme Court ruled that Sinner "is and has been since the first moment of Jan. 1, 1985, the governor of the State of North Dakota."

The calm, studious Sinner immediately went to the governor's office and bade farwell to the casual, chipper Olson.

As he left the capitol, Olson said he "would love to be courted" by the Reagan administration for a job in Washington. Sinner later said he regretted the entire affair, but one of his aides conceded that one good joke had come of it:


"Who's there?"


"Governor Who?"

"You must be from North Dakota."