Watch: Chief Justice Joel Bolger’s 2020 State of the Judiciary address

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Bolger’s been on the Supreme Court since 2013. This is his second year as its chief justice, which is the administrative head of the entire court system. And that’s what these speeches tend to focus on: administrative issues like caseloads, staffing and budgeting.

This year, however, there’s an elephant in the room.

Since Bolger’s last speech to the Legislature, Gov. Mike Dunleavy used his veto power to cut $334,700 in court system funding. The veto reflects what the state spent the previous year on “elective abortions,” according to the governor’s budget documents. The Dunleavy administration characterized the Supreme Court as the only branch of state government that “insists on state-funded elective abortions.”

Last February, the Alaska Supreme Court struck down a state law that restricted state funding for certain kinds of abortions.

Dunleavy’s veto is the subject of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. It’s also referenced as one of the grounds to recall the governor in the official petition.

Judges usually don’t comment about politics or cases they might hear. But before Dunleavy’s budget veto, Bolger did comment on the importance of judicial independence. Speaking to West High School students in Anchorage last February, he said:

“I want to talk for just a minute about an incident that was in the news last fall. Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court took issue with President Donald Trump. President Donald Trump had characterized a federal judge who ruled against his administration as a quote ‘Obama judge.’ And Chief Justice Roberts responded immediately. And this is what he said: ‘We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.

“I wanted to bring this up this morning. Because I agree with Chief Justice Roberts. And I want you to think about this idea as part of this program. In Alaska, we are lucky to have judges who are appointed based on their merit, and not elected on a political platform. So when we face a problem, like the one you will hear about this morning, we are not facing it as a political question. Instead, it is a legal question: What does the law mean based on our experience, logic and common sense?”

Bolger didn’t revisit that specific topic in his address, but he is overseeing some systemic changes highlighted in the court system’s last annual report.

The state court system is expanding its relationship with tribal courts. It now has written agreements to work with and refer some cases to 20 separate tribal courts, up from 13 in the previous year. It’s also working through a plan to improve the court system’s presence in rural communities.

The court system’s transition off of a paper-based filing and record keeping system also has some new target dates. The electronic filing and document management system being piloted at Kenai Peninsula courthouses is supposed to go statewide this year for certain case types.

This preview was written by KTOO’s Jeremy Hsieh.


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