Alaska’s chief justice shuts down all new jury trials

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks in October. (Photo by Wesley Early, KOTZ – Kotzebue)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger on Sunday ordered that all new jury trials be suspended, building on a directive last week that led to the suspension of trials in half of the state’s judicial districts out of concern over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Read more: Alaska Court System suspends new trials in Anchorage, Palmer, Kenai

In his second special order in three days, Bolger cited last week’s disaster declaration by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the national emergency declaration by President Donald Trump, along with Dunleavy’s mandate closing all public schools through the end of the month.

“These emergency declarations may affect the availability of court staff, attorneys, and jurors to begin new jury trials,” Bolger wrote in his order Sunday.

Read more coronavirus coverage from Alaska Public Media

Jury trials already underway will continue. But the court system, in a pair of tweets Monday morning, urged defendants in pending new trials not to report to previously scheduled hearings.

“If you are scheduled for a state pre-trial conference today 3/16 at 9:30 a.m. before Judge Hanley in courtroom 38, Boney courthouse, DO NOT COME to court,” the court system wrote. “There will not be a bench warrant issued for people who do not show. Talk to your lawyer at a later time to discuss next steps.”

New trials had previously been suspended in two of the state’s four judicial districts, including the Third District — which covers Anchorage, Palmer, Kenai and other areas — and the Second District, which includes the northern Alaska hub towns of Kotzebue, Nome, Unalakleet and Utqiagvik.

On Thursday, the Alaska Supreme Court is set to consider an emergency order that could loosen court rules in response to the coronavirus’ spread.

The court system says “essential functions” will continue and that it will ensure due process.

Those essential functions include domestic violence and emergency mental health proceedings, and bail and emergency child welfare hearings. The court system also says courthouses statewide have taken steps to reduce COVID-19 transmission, including “social distancing” measures.