Legislature(2019 - 2020)ADAMS ROOM 519

03/26/2019 09:00 AM FINANCE

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* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
Heard & Held
-- Public Testimony --
Heard & Held
-- Public Testimony --
+ Bills Previously Heard/Scheduled TELECONFERENCED
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                                                                    
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                                                                    
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                                                                    
Co-Chair Wilson OPENED and CLOSED public testimony.                                                                             
HB  77  was   HEARD  and  HELD  in   committee  for  further                                                                    

Document Name Date/Time Subjects
HB077 Sectional Analysis ver A 3-19-19.pdf HFIN 3/26/2019 9:00:00 AM
HB 77
HB077 - sponsor statement 3-19-19.pdf HFIN 3/26/2019 9:00:00 AM
HB 77
HB048 ver M Sponsor Statement 3.21.19.pdf HFIN 3/26/2019 9:00:00 AM
HB 48