Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger delivered the annual State of the Judiciary Address to the Alaska Legislature at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Watch a live stream here, on 360 North television, or tune into KTOO-FM.
The chief justice is a judge on the five-member state Supreme Court, of course, but also the administrative head of the entire court system, which includes about 125 judges and over 700 non-judicial employees. The court system disposed of 119,007 cases in the last fiscal year, according to the court system’s FY2018 annual report.
This annual speech is an opportunity to update the Legislature on the court system’s operations. He may also ask for budget and policy changes that require legislation.
The court system’s operations came up last month in Gov. Michael Dunleavy’s State of the State address. He asked for help making Alaska the safest state in the country.
“Therefore, we will expend the necessary resources for additional State Troopers, provide more local control and more prosecutors,” he said. “We will ensure that our courts will remain open five full days a week in order to hear cases. We will provide the focus and the resources necessary to combat the scourge of opiates and other illicit drugs driving up our crime rates and ruining lives.”
“Five full days a week” is a reference to a past cost-cutting measure that began in 2016. That’s when the court system started shutting down most courthouse business on Friday afternoons.
Last week, the Dunleavy administration released its budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. Most departments were subject to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts. However, if Dunleavy gets his way, the court system is in for a budget increase.
By the administration’s estimate, reopening courthouses on Friday afternoons would take hiring 15 full-time employees and about $3 million. Otherwise, the governor’s budget proposal for the court system calls for flat funding.
In last year’s State of the Judiciary address, then-Chief Justice Craig Stowers ticked through some of the impacts of cutting the court system’s budget:
“With fewer staff employees, there is some inevitable delay in docketing cases; there is some delay in the distribution of notices and orders. There are some delays processing jury expense claims and payments; there are also delays in data entry into CourtView. All of these delays are unfortunate, to be sure; all of it is entirely expected, and unavoidable.
“On the operational level, we aren’t able to train our new and existing employees to the degree best practices would suggest; one natural consequence of less training is some loss of quality control. We are required to provide reports and analyses of much that we do to other state and federal agencies, to the public, and to you, the Legislature. With the loss of administrative and clerical staff, the court is unable to analyze data and produce reports for court users and non-court agencies as quickly or as freely as we did previously. Again, unfortunate, but a foreseeable consequence of downsizing.”
The current chief justice, Joel Bolger, has been on the Alaska Supreme Court since 2013. This is his first year of a three-year term as chief justice. The Supreme Court elected him to the position effective last July. Bolger took over the role as Justice Stowers’ three-year term ended.
Originally from Iowa, Bolger’s legal career in Alaska began in the late 1970s with the Alaska Legal Services Corporation in Dillingham. The nonprofit provides legal services on civil matters to people with low income.
Bolger has also been an assistant public defender in Utqiaġvik, a private attorney in Kodiak, a district court judge in Valdez, Superior Court judge in Kodiak, and a Court of Appeals judge in Anchorage.
This is the second of three special addresses this week in the state Capitol. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski spoke Tuesday and Alaska’s junior U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan is set for 11 a.m. Thursday.