Chief Justice Bolger says courts will not bow to outside political interests and financial influences

Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger delivered his annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday and while it didn’t feature the sci-fi references of his predecessor, it did drive home on the importance of an independent and impartial judiciary.

“As move forward, I must also mention the important ideal that the judicial branch must continue to decide cases in accordance with the facts determined by impartial judges and the rule of law based on the Constitution, the statutes you provide and the common law developed through prior decisions,” he said. “The court system will continue to do our work independently of any outside political interests or financial influences so that the public can continue to be certain that each court decision is fair and impartial. I can also assure you that the court system maintains an unbreakable commitment to deliver equal justice for all, no matter the obstacles we face. Despite the growing workloads and the decreased staffing, we are determined to fulfill our obligation to decide all matters brought before us fairly and efficiently with respect to the parties involved, the interests of the public and the rule of law.”

The speech comes against the backdrop of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s politically motivated veto of the court system last year—which is the source of its own lawsuit and one of the grounds of the recall effort—and the governor’s continued meddling with the court system’s budget.

Dunleavy vetoed $334,700 from the court system’s budget last year over an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that struck down an anti-abortion law passed by the Legislature. The ACLU brought a lawsuit against the state, seeking to reverse the governor’s veto by arguing that it violated the separation of powers. That case is still pending.

The governor then attempted to repeat that cut by taking the unprecedented step of altering the court system’s budget request before delivering it to the Legislature, a move that Bolger told Dunleavy would violate the separation of powers rules in the Alaska Constitution. Dunleavy ultimately said he would restore the funding when he submits an amended budget, holding out the possibility he could veto it for a second time.

A House budget subcommittee voted to restore the money last week, concerned not only about the worrisome precedent it set but also the real impacts it had on the court system.

“We would like that money back,” Doug Wooliver, the deputy administrative director for the Alaska Court System, told the commitee. “We had to reduce our pro-tem judges that we use to resolve cases not only in the trial courts but also, significantly, in the appellate courts. The loss of this money has contributed to the delay in resolving both types of cases. This is a big hit for the court of appeals, and we would very much like that money back.”

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said if allowed to stand, the governor would be empowered to continue interfere in the courts. He suggested a hypothetical case where a DOT driver injured a person and the state was forced to pay a settlement, noting that the governor could turn around and punish the courts for the settlement.

“Under this practice, the administration could say, ‘We didn’t like that ruling, it’s cost the state and therefore we’re going to take it out of your budget,'” he said. “That concerns me.”

That committee’s recommendation to restore the funds will be forwarded to the full House Finance Committee for inclusion in its version of the budget.

It’s not the only request the courts are making of the Legislature this year.

Other requests

Bolger’s address largely focused on the work the court system has done to cope with the state’s financial woes while making some requests for new funding and law changes that will help it handle the growing load of criminal cases thanks to the passage of last year’s tough-on-crime legislation.

He said there’s been a 40 percent increase to trials compared to five years ago, with a big uptick in resource-intensive felony cases. He noted that several court initiatives have helped handle the load, such as seeking mediation for divorces, but said that ultimately many of the court’s systems are at their limit.

To that end, he requested funding for a 1 percent pay increase to court employees, expanded resources for the Wellness Courts that focus on the rehabilitation of drug and alcohol offenders and additional help for the state’s Court of Appeals.

He said the three-judge Court of Appeals is working a “grueling schedule” to reduce its backlog, but with the uptick in new cases they’re having trouble keeping up. He asked for passage of Sen. David Wilson’s Senate Bill 55, which would allow the court system to appoint a temporary fourth judge the Court of Appeals, as well as for a staff attorney to help the court.

“Simply put we have fewer resources than we used to, but there has unfortunately been no corresponding moratorium on crimes being committed, no decrease in the rate of child abuse and neglect, no lower divorce rate and no decline in the need for justice to be dispensed in other important areas,” Bolger said.

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