Alaska courts quieter, but still working, amid coronavirus changes

The seal of the state of Alaska hangs on April 19, 2018, behind the dais where Alaska Supreme Court justices normally hear cases in the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Alaska’s court system looks very different these days, as judges, attorneys and court staff work under new directives to keep people safe from coronavirus.

With some exceptions, the moves include halting Superior and District court proceedings at least until April, postponing all trials and grand jury proceedings until May, and suspending rules guaranteeing defendants’ rights to have their cases heard in a timely manner.

The recent orders aim to strike a balance between protecting people and protecting rights.

“There are serious individual rights at stake,” said Joel Bolger, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, the one who’s signing the special orders. “But we also are very mindful of our duty to protect the public.”

“It’s certainly not something that we do lightly, because both a criminal defendant and a victim and also the public have a right to a prompt disposition of criminal charges, for example,” Bolger said.

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Court proceedings deemed “high priority” are still happening. Those include domestic violence hearings, arraignments and first appearances in felony cases, bail hearings, change of plea and sentencing hearings, and hearings related to children in need of aid.

Court staff are trying to move as many of the remaining court proceedings as they can to telephonic or videoconference participation, and rules have been relaxed significantly around actually appearing in-person in even the high-priority cases.

Alaska Courts Administrative Director Stacey Marz said that has been a challenge for hearings on domestic violence restraining orders. Victims often do not have a lawyer, and they tend to seek help by finding their way to the courthouse, appearing in-person before a judge to ask for protection from an assailant.

“Of the foot traffic that we’re seeing, which is greatly reduced overall, that has been one population that has been continuing to come to court, because they need the protection or they’re requesting the protection,” Marz said. “But we’re also trying, now, to make that less necessary to actually physically come to building.”

That means the courts are trying to provide better ways for victims to email forms or appear by telephone, Marz said.

Also included as high-priority proceedings are quarantine hearings, particularly relevant to the current pandemic. Those are hearings in which a health official petitions the court to have someone with a contagious disease involuntarily detained because they refuse to isolate themselves from others.

Bolger said in his more than two decades as a judge, he’s never heard of a petition to quarantine someone in Alaska. Mara Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the Alaska court system, said there is “no indication” any quarantine petitions have been filed so far this year.

But in the age of coronavirus, Bolger said it has come up as a possibility.

“Of course, we’ve been looking at it and providing our judges resources about it,” Bolger said. “And we’re trying to foster communication between the various attorneys and agencies that will be involved in those proceedings.”

There are some less hypothetical, more immediate problems the courts are grappling with. One is the shackling-together of inmates in certain hearings, like arraignments, for security concerns.

The Department of Corrections is looking at ways to have more defendants participate in those hearings by videoconference from jail, rather than come to court, Bolger said.

Another issue is paper records, the physical copies of documents upon which much of the state court system relies.

While there has been an effort in recent years to move toward electronic filing, like in the federal court system, most everyone participating in court proceedings — from judges and clerks to lawyers and defendants — still must touch and handle various court papers, and there is concern about those papers being a vector for coronavirus to spread.

Like many of the adjustments the court system has had to make amid the rapidly evolving pandemic, the courts’ paper-handling policy is something Marz said she is looking at.

“And we’re still not quite sure what the standard is,” Marz said. “It’s really, I guess I should say, a work in progress, because we do want to make sure that we do not potentially risk anybody’s health.”

Marz and Bolger said they do not anticipate the situation getting so bad that the courts will shut down entirely. For one thing, they said, conducting court proceedings remotely is nothing new in Alaska, with so many far-flung communities.

And unlike other states, Alaska has a unified court system, meaning there is not a patchwork of county courts that might not communicate as well with each other or be able to absorb each other’s cases if one judicial district were to shut down.

“If we had an area of the state that was particularly hard hit at one time, we could shift operations to be handled remotely, in many aspects, from another court location,” Marz said.

Alaska court employees will continue to do everything in their power to keep conducting the high-priority court business, and they will pick up on the more routine civil and criminal proceedings as soon as it is safe to do so, Bolger and Marz said.

More information about the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on Alaska’s courts can be found at courts.alaska.gov.