A new piece of legislation put forth by the Alaska Court System was heard for the first time Monday afternoon by the Senate Judicial Committee. Senate Bill 41 is requesting two additional superior court judges be added to the existing 43 statewide. The new positions, housed in the Third Judicial District, would convert existing district court seats into superior court judgeships, expanding their scope and jurisdiction and, hopefully, cutting down on the backlog of cases.

Alaska has four sweeping judicial districts. The First Judicial District covers southeast Alaska and includes Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, and Wrangell, overseen by six superior court judges. Three superior court judges cover the Second Judicial District, encompassing northern Alaska, from Utqiaġkiv to Kotzebue to Nome. Southern Alaska hosts the most populous Third Judicial District, where 26 superior court judges span Anchorage, Cordova, Dillingham, Glennallen, Homer, Kenai, Kodiak, Naknek, Palmer, Seward, Unalaska, and Valdez. The Fourth Judicial comprises interior Alaska, from Bethel to Fairbanks, presided over by eight superior court judges.

Image courtesy of the Alaska Court System

Senate Bill 41 deals with two judgeships – or, the lack-thereof – in Homer and Valdez. Currently, there are no superior court judges to oversee cases in those population hubs, which served a combined population of just over 18,500 Alaskans in 2017. That task is instead left to a single district court judge in each locale (Valdez also has a magistrate judge).

To compound the matter, Valdez District Court Judge Daniel Schally was tapped by Gov. Bill Walker (I-Alaska) in his final weeks as governor to fill a new Superior Court seat in Juneau, added by the legislature last year, leaving the district court seat vacant. Homer’s lone district court judge, Margaret Murphy, appointed in 2015, announced plans to retire this summer.

“[Homer and Valdez are] the only court locations [left in Alaska] that are single-judge locations where the judge is not a superior court judge,” Nancy Meade told Senate Judiciary Committee members. Meade serves as general counsel of the Alaska Court System. “Those are both district court judges and this bill would change that. Superior court judges have general jurisdiction. They can do everything.”

Superior courts serve as the trial court of general jurisdiction. They function as an appellate court for appeals from criminal and civil cases, as well as administrative agencies, that have been tried in district court. They also cover divorce and custody cases, child abuse and neglect cases, and serve as the adjudicative body in cases regarding property of deceased or incompetent persons and the involuntary commitment of the mentally ill. This is a much broader jurisdiction than district courts, which are limited to hearing cases involving state misdemeanors and minor offenses and violations of local ordinances, civil cases valued under $100,000, small claims cases up to $10,000, protective orders (domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault), emergency child situations, and preliminary hearings in felony cases.

“Coverage in Homer has been a bit problematic for years,” Meade conceded. “All the superior court filings in Homer – and there have been an average of over 300 a year – have been handled by Kenai judges traveling down to Homer to resolve those cases. That’s working, but it is probably not the most efficient way for us to use our resources.”

Judges from Kenai generally spend one week per month covering those cases, which totaled 332 last year (a nearly 17-percent increase from 2016), though that can ebb or flow depending on circumstances. The added travel creates expenses to the State and also can pull judges away from local matters, creating new backlogs while attempting to ameliorate the preexisting one.

“Having those superior court judges in place instead would allow a lot more flexibility,” Meade said. “Because the Homer and Valdez district court judge seats are vacant or soon will be, this bill is timely. If passed, the solicitation for applicants to those two positions will be for a superior court rather than a district court judge.”

The only additional cost to the State, noted in SB41’s fiscal note, would be $71,000 a year – a figure Meade said pays the difference between the salary/benefits for a district court judge and the salary/benefits for a superior court judge. The reduction in travel expenses, combined with the decision to avoid further staffing of judicial assistants, law clerks, or in-court clerks, translates to a net fiscal impact of $62,000 annually, she added.

“In this period of reduced financial resources, the court system is working closely with other branches of government to make certain that the entire justice system functions as efficiently as possible,” the Alaska Court System’s Annual Report FY 2018, released in June of last year, emphasized. Before Senate Judiciary, Meade echoed this sentiment, stressing that Alaska State Court System Administrative Director Christine Johnson and Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger worked with staff to review all options, alternatives, and consequences, and found that “reclassifying these positions will be effective, efficient, fiscally responsible, and helpful to Alaskans.”

Keeping a wary eye on the budget, they declined to include any support staff – judicial assistants, law clerks, or in-court clerks – in the request.

“We tried to keep our fiscal note as narrow as possible – as small as possible, frankly,” Meade offered. “We think we can use resources from other locations to fill in for that.” The omission of additional staff and the reduction in travel expenses expected with the switch, she added, should translate to a net fiscal impact of $62,000 annually.

The bill was held over in committee after closing public testimony (of which there was none). The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

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