Chief justice to Alaska Legislature: The courts remain independent

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger gets a round of applause after delivering the annual State of the Judiciary Address to the Alaska Legislature in Juneau on Feb. 12, 2020. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger assured the Legislature in his State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday that the state’s courts remain independent.

“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,” Bolger said.

The judiciary’s independence has been the subject of two high-profile cases. Both are in response to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision to veto more than $334,700 from the courts’ budget because he disagreed with court rulings on public funding of abortions. He said the veto amount equaled the cost of the abortions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and two residents sued Dunleavy, saying the action violated the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government.

The issue is also one of four grounds listed in the application to recall Dunleavy from office.

Bolger didn’t directly address either case. In his remarks to the Legislature, he said the courts are handling 40% more felony cases than five years ago. And they’re doing it with 9% fewer court employees.

“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 lowered divorce rate, and no decline in the need for justice to be dispensed,” Bolger said.

The courts are asking for three new employees to help with the workload. One would be a temporary judge for the court of appeals, as well as a permanent appeals staff attorney, aimed at reducing a backlog in appeals cases.

And the courts also are seeking a deputy coordinator to work on the therapeutic courts. These courts provide supervision and therapy in lieu of prison for some offenders with mental illnesses or drug problems. Bolger said the coordinator could expand the use of the courts.