Chief justice urges lawmakers to collaborate and compromise

Sen. Mia Costello prepares to escort Chief Justice Craig Stowers with
Rep. Zach Fansler into the House Chambers on Feb. 8, 2017, for the annual State of the Judiciary Address. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Craig Stowers said Alaska’s courts are leading the way in cutting costs in a way that doesn’t threaten vital services.

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In the annual State of the Judiciary address Stowers gave Wednesday, he told lawmakers this Legislature has a chance to be remembered by history for addressing the state’s fiscal crisis. He said much is similar to the options they faced last year.

“But things are different today in the sense that you have – Alaska has – less time to find the way forward to an effective and fair solution to the financial challenges we face,” Stowers said.

Stowers said it’s not his place to advise legislators on how to address the state’s budget. But he urged them to collaborate and compromise.

“The stark reality is that Alaska is quickly depleting its savings; new revenue is going to be very difficult to generate; relying solely on cutting state government will not solve the problem; postponing hard decisions will needlessly squander what time remains; and there is great controversy about all of the options that you face,” Stowers said.

The court has proposed cutting its $105 million budget by $3.6 million. Combined with cuts this year and last, it would have reduced costs by $11 million over three years.

“It is doable and will not inflict long-term damage or disruption to the court’s core functions,” Stowers said. “Our strategy is to make careful, incremental reductions over time; these kinds of reductions are more manageable; and they allow for greater predictability and continuity of core court operations.”

Stowers said the courts plan to leave 10 of 690 positions unfilled this year. And the courts aren’t filling vacant magistrate judge positions in rural courts. Stowers noted these rural courts are the face of state government in some communities. But he said the judges have “very small” case loads compared with other courts.

The cases would be heard either by a judge who will periodically travel to rural areas, or at a different court, with parties appearing by phone or video-link if they can’t attend in person.

Court workers took a 4 percent pay cut last year, when the courts began closing on Friday afternoons.

Stowers said he’s concerned about the effect of those cuts.

“This salary reduction, when added to the upcoming significant increase in employee contributions to health care coverage, is a true hardship that those earning more may not appreciate,” Stowers said. “Many of our employees are clerical employees at or near the bottom of the state government pay scale; some have to work several jobs to make ends meet for their families.”

The chief justice noted some areas where the courts have expanded services, including training workers and lawyers on the overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.