Chief Justice: State Of Judiciary ‘Good’

Alaska Chief Justice Peter Maassen delivers the annual State of the Judiciary
Address Wednesday. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

By CLAIRE STREMPLE
Alaska Beacon
    Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter Maassen told lawmakers that the state’s court system is fine, in a concise State of the Judiciary address to legislators on Wednesday.
    “The state of the judiciary is, in a word, good,” he said.
    Maassen highlighted successes in accessibility and efficiency in the court system, much of it through formalizing effective procedures that began during the pandemic, and acknowledged a persistent and damaging backlog of criminal court cases. He also asked lawmakers to seriously consider funding an emergency technology system and deferred maintenance for courthouses.
    He said many of this year’s successes come from adapting pandemic-era use of video technology. The Supreme Court issued an order to increase the use of remote proceedings, which Maassen said relieves the effect of a personnel shortage in remote locations. This has been beneficial to the Department of Law, Public Defender Agency, and Office of Public Advocacy, he said.
    “They have struggled to keep lawyers in some court locations where their participation is really essential to the types of cases that are heard. Their lawyers often have caseloads that touch many different communities separated by hundreds of miles,” Maassen said.
    He highlighted how the court system has worked with the Department of Corrections to reduce the amount of transports necessary for inmates by ensuring that all jails have video equipment, so they can attend their pretrial hearings by video. Fewer inmate transports translates to cost savings and a public safety benefit, he said.
    Maassen also pointed to a pilot program in Bethel that conducts jury selection by video-conference for civil and criminal misdemeanor cases. The intent is to reduce cost to the state — in the fiscal year that ended in June 2023, jury expenses were nearly $2 million, he noted — and inconvenience to Alaskans.
    In a later interview, Maassen added that the court is still prioritizing staff and facilities in Alaska communities, despite the many remote options. “We don’t want to be a wholly automated court system,” he said.

Backlog
    Maassen noted the state’s response to a backlog of criminal cases, which grew while courts closed down in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and persisted because of attorney shortages.
    He said the courts have adopted “trailing calendars,” which means “that if one case set for trial folds at the last minute, there’s another one in the queue ready to go,” and efforts are underway to limit delays and get results from pretrial hearings.
    He said every effort is being made to get cases heard expediently.
    “The courts stand ready to hold jury trials; we will find courtrooms, if necessary we will bring back retired judges to preside over trials whenever the other institutional players are ready to go,” he said. “We are going to work through this, so that next year we can present it to you again as one of our successes.”

Budget
    Maassen asked legislators to consider two main funding requests. He said a $2.5 million emergency fund to safeguard against a cyberattack would be a prudent investment considering recent attacks on other states’ court systems.
    He also asked for $2.6 million for deferred maintenance on court buildings. In Sitka, a leaky roof has closed the court on multiple occasions and made offices unusable, Maassen said later on Wednesday.
    The governor’s budget does not include funding for deferred maintenance for courts and the request for an emergency fund was removed from the capital budget.
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