In a 27-minute speech that included allusions to the Bible and “Star Wars,” Alaska Chief Justice Craig Stowers delivered Alaska’s annual State of the Judiciary address and asked the Alaska Legislature to add a new superior court judge in Juneau.
Stowers, who will end his three-year term as chief justice on July 1, said the Legislature should pass legislation replacing one of Juneau’s district court judgeships with a third superior court seat.
“A rare opportunity now offers a solution, but as the radio ads say, this opportunity is available for only a limited time,” Stowers told the Legislature. “A Juneau district court judge is retiring this summer. We propose that you amend the statute which authorizes the number of superior court judges, to convert the Juneau district court judge position to a superior court judge position.”
Juneau’s superior court judges are overloaded, Stowers said, and while traveling judges from Sitka and Ketchikan have taken up some of the workload, that isn’t ideal because it starves those locations of service and costs the state in travel expenses.
Stowers said the ideal situation would involve creating a third superior court courtroom and judicial chambers, then hire staff for a third new judge, but given the state’s financial situation, that isn’t an option.
He said the court system will instead simply ask for the replacement and will not ask for additional funding.
“I think it makes sense,” said Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, after the speech.
“I think it’s great. I think it’s efficiency,” said Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River and a member of the judiciary committee.
“I think it’s a legitimate request, and I think we’ll look at it favorably,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and chairman of the judiciary committee in the Senate.
Stowers’ suggestion has been submitted as Senate Bill 151 and House Bill 298. SB 151 is in the Senate Judiciary Committee; HB 298 is in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau.
Last year, Stowers used the State of the Judiciary address to suggest limited cuts to the state’s judicial system, one of three independent branches of government in Alaska. The Legislature duly followed suit, cutting the courts’ budget from $107.1 million to $105.4 million.
This year, Stowers did not request any additional budget cuts and instead addressed the consequences of prior budget cuts. The judicial branch’s staff has been cut 11 percent since 2015, from 750 employees (and 70 judges) to 690 employees and 70 judges.
At the same time, their workload has increased. The number of child-aid cases has risen, as has the number of cases where Alaskans are seeking to commit friends or family members to custody.
“There is a book somewhere that admonishes us to count the cost,” Stowers said, referencing a particular Bible verse from the book of Luke. “The Court System has undergone challenges of historic proportion in the past several years; many changes have resulted as a consequence; and there have been costs.”
He said the judicial branch is moving more slowly, and staff training has also suffered.
The judiciary will this year begin an experiment that reduces the hours and staffing at rural court offices, and Stowers said the branch also plans “to hire more non-law-trained deputy magistrate judges” locally, an act that would save about $400,000 per year.
Even with those savings, the budget Stowers has submitted to the Legislature (through Gov. Bill Walker’s annual budget) calls for a judiciary budget of about $106 million, up $600,000 from last year.
The increase would put the judiciary’s budget below 2013 levels but above 2012 levels. According to documents provided by the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division, the additional money will cover the rising cost of jury travel in rural areas and add an additional position in Anchorage’s veterans court.
Stowers told the Empire after his speech that he wants court system employees to know that he regrets a decision made last year to furlough employees on Friday afternoons and appreciates the sacrifices that they have made.
He ended his address to lawmakers by saying he has full confidence that they will reach an agreement to solve Alaska’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
“Do or do not, there is no try,” he said. “I wish you well as you do your important work on behalf of all Alaskans.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.