Legislature(2019 - 2020)ADAMS ROOM 519
03/26/2019 09:00 AM FINANCE
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HOUSE BILL NO. 77 "An Act relating to the number of superior court judges in the third judicial district; and providing for an effective date." 9:01:00 AM NANCY MEADE, GENERAL COUNSEL, ALASKA COURT SYSTEM, relayed that the bill had been put forward by the Alaska Court System. She noted it was not very common for the courts to put legislation forward. She explained that the Court System needed legislative authorization to change the number of superior court judges. The legislation would increase the number of superior court judges by two (from 43 to 45 statewide) in the third judicial district. The court hoped to convert two existing district court judgeships located in Homer and Valdez to superior court judgeships. She explained that Homer and Valdez were the only locations in Alaska with a single judge who was a district court judge. Ms. Mead detailed that superior court judges had general jurisdiction and could handle anything that came into the trial court. Their caseload was primarily comprised of felonies, child in need of aid (CINA) cases, divorce and child custody issues, and probate (such as mental commitments); superior court judges could handle anything that came in the door. In contrast, a district court judge had limited jurisdiction and could not handle felonies, CINA, divorce and child custody issues. The reason to convert the seats was to provide judges in Homer and Valdez expanded jurisdiction that would enable them to handle all cases locally. Ms. Mead reported the timing for the change was ideal. The Valdez seat was vacant - the previous district court judge had been appointed as the new superior court judge in Juneau (as a result of legislation passed the previous session that authorized the change for a Juneau judge). The district court judge in Homer had announced her retirement effective at the end of the fiscal year. She explained that if the bill passed, the Alaska Judicial Council would advertise the positions as superior court judge seats rather than district court judge seats. Ms. Mead explained the current process in Homer in the absence of a superior court judge. She detailed that the district court judge handled all district court matters, but superior court cases (e.g. child in need of aid, divorce cases, and felonies) were handled by Kenai superior court judges traveling to Homer. Kenai judges had traveled to Homer 35 times in the past two years - their default schedule was to travel to Homer one week per month. She noted that the situation was not ideal. She elaborated that the situation could be rectified and improved by having a local judge with the ability to handle all filings. 9:04:29 AM Ms. Mead addressed the situation in Valdez. The district court judge who had been in Valdez a lengthy period of time and had substantial experience and willingness had a temporary appointment by the state supreme court to handle numerous, but not all, superior court matters. She elaborated that sometimes Palmer or Anchorage judges would travel to Valdez. She explained that if a new [permanent district court] judge was appointed to the Valdez position by the supreme court, it was unlikely they would be appointed to handle any of the felony, divorce, and CINA cases. She suggested it was the time to fix the situation and rectify the inefficiencies. Ms. Mead detailed that the Alaska Supreme Court had tried numerous ways to make the situation better. She elaborated that the Kenai and Homer courts were connected by video equipment and in the past couple of years more hearings could be held [via video] by the Kenai superior court judge while the defendant (e.g. in a felony or CINA case) was in the Homer court room. She noted that videoconferencing was not satisfactory for numerous proceedings; in many cases the parties needed to see the judge and the judge needed to see what was going on in the courtroom. She explained that videoconferencing was not a permanent or ideal solution. Ms. Mead reported that the courts had tried having judges (who may have lighter caseloads) travel from other courts. The state supreme court was always looking at metrics for case filings and positions and trying to move things around as necessary, perhaps with temporary or traveling judges. However, due to the retirement in Homer and vacancy in Valdez, the courts were hoping to fix the problem to avoid inefficiency going forward. 9:06:50 AM Representative LeBon asked about the differences in the qualifications, education, and training between the district and superior court judges. Ms. Mead answered that there were minimum qualifications requiring superior and district court judges to be a resident and have a law degree. She believed superior court judges had to be actively practicing law for five years prior to applying. She thought the length of time may be four years for district judges. Representative LeBon observed the stated difference was not major. He surmised that elevating oneself from a district court judgeship position to a superior court position was not a huge leap in terms of qualifications. Ms. Mead replied that the statutory minimum qualifications were not substantially different; however, the workload was very different. She elaborated that often the advertisement for the positions attracted different types of candidates. There was a different pace in the two courts - the superior court required the writing of considerably more opinions and district court required a fast turnover of a large number of cases. 9:08:18 AM Representative Knopp asked if the appointment process was the same for the [superior court and district court judgeship] positions. He asked if the Judicial Council would nominate three candidates for the positions. Ms. Mead answered in the affirmative. She detailed that advertisements for any judgeship position went through the Judicial Council and the council needed to nominate at lease two highly qualified people for each judgeship. Representative Knopp asked for verification that at least four nominees would be forwarded for consideration. Ms. Mead replied that the Judicial Council conducted the work by seat; therefore, the council would nominate at least two individuals for Valdez and in a separate process it would nominate at least two individuals for Homer. Representative Knopp asked if the seats would be filled mid to late summer. Ms. Mead agreed and specified it took four to six months to fill a seat. Representative Josephson provided a hypothetical scenario where a person filed an action in Homer. He asked if the person had the discretion to file action in Kenai instead. For example, he wondered if a person had to file in Homer if the act or events occurred in Seldovia. Ms. Mead believed the person could file in Kenai or Homer. Representative Josephson asked how the bill would impact the workloads of the public defenders, human services attorneys, and district attorneys. Ms. Mead replied that it would not change workload because the bill had no impact on the number of cases filed. However, the bill could change the location where cases were handled. She believed the attorneys would be pleased to have the cases covered in those locations [Homer and Valdez] because perhaps it would involve less travel. She noted she would not speak for the agencies. She added that currently a felony filed in Homer was heard in Homer, but it required a Kenai judge to travel to Homer for the hearing. She considered that the bill may not have a significant impact on the agencies. 9:10:45 AM Vice-Chair Ortiz asked about the net fiscal impact on the Court System if the bill passed. He recognized that a superior court judge would be paid more but there would be less travel. Ms. Mead replied there was a fiscal note showing the difference in salary and benefits (a superior court judge was paid more than a district court judge). The note included travel savings, which would occur primarily because Kenai judges would no longer travel to Homer. The total net impact was $62,000 per year. Vice-Chair Johnston noted that the supreme court had made the same change in Juneau [converting a district court judgeship seat to a superior court seat]. She thought it appeared people believed the change had been successful. She asked whether data had been collected in terms of time savings or effectiveness. Ms. Mead replied that the data was not available; it was not possible to track how much more effective the Juneau court was. The sense was the Juneau court was working more efficiently and effectively because with the results of legislation the previous year there were three superior court judges and one district court judge. The bill had moved one district court judgeship seat up to a superior court seat. She reported that the flow of cases in the superior court had been good. The court did not have data showing whether precise cases were being resolved faster, but the sense was it was more efficient. 9:13:06 AM Vice-Chair Johnston asked if there was a difference in backlog. Ms. Mead thought there may not be a difference yet. She relayed that the new superior court judge had started a couple of months earlier and the coming Friday would be his formal installation. The sense was that things were working more efficiently. Representative Carpenter understood the superior court in Kenai was backlogged and that it would be beneficial for Kenai if its judge did not have to travel one week per month. He asked if the Homer need for superior court cases equaled a full-time superior court judge. He wondered if the judge would have free time to help with other cases on the Kenai Peninsula. Ms. Mead answered that the caseload in Homer was not so high that it would justify a full superior court judge, but the appointee would handle all of the district court filings as well. If the judge had extra time the plan was to provide increased flexibility to allow the judge help in other locations (the Valdez superior court judge could help in Palmer and the Homer judge could help in Kenai to the extent feasible). Representative Carpenter remarked that the fiscal note included savings in travel. He asked if the savings would not materialize because the new superior court judge in Homer would travel to help in other locations when necessary. Ms. Mead answered there could be additional travel having the Homer superior court judge help in Kenai. However, she believed the Homer judge would be busy in Homer most of the time with the combination of superior and district court work. There were always some travel costs because judges were fluid and filled in where needed throughout districts. 9:16:01 AM Representative Josephson asked how many itinerant judge calendars would remain in Alaska if the bill passed. He cited Unalaska as an example and recalled cases where a judge flew from Dillingham to Anchorage to Unalaska. Ms. Mead answered there were a number of small court locations without a resident judge. Those locations, such as Unalaska, had a magistrate judge who handled lower level proceedings - there were 40 court locations and sometimes a court only had a deputy magistrate. She explained that in those situations a judge in Anchorage was assigned to any felonies that arose. For example, a judge from Anchorage was traveling to Saint Paul for a felony case in the coming month; the caseload in Saint Paul was not large enough to warrant a superior or district court judge. She elaborated that certain judges, typically in Anchorage, were assigned to carry the caseload in places like Sand Point and Unalaska. Co-Chair Wilson OPENED and CLOSED public testimony. HB 77 was HEARD and HELD in committee for further consideration.
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|HB048 ver M Sponsor Statement 3.21.19.pdf||
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