Legislature(2017 - 2018)GRUENBERG 120

02/14/2018 01:00 PM House JUDICIARY

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Audio Topic
01:05:48 PM Start
01:06:13 PM HB298
01:34:38 PM Election of the House Judiciary Standing Committee Vice Chair
01:35:49 PM Adjourn
* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
+ Confirmation Hearing: Select Committee on TELECONFERENCED
Legislative Ethics
<Above Item Rescheduled to 2/19/18>
Moved HB 298 Out of Committee
-- Public Testimony --
+ Bills Previously Heard/Scheduled TELECONFERENCED
             HB 298-NUMBER OF SUPERIOR COURT JUDGES                                                                         
1:06:13 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR CLAMAN announced  that the only order of  business would be                                                               
HOUSE BILL  NO. 298, "An Act  relating to the number  of superior                                                               
court judges  in the first  judicial district; and  providing for                                                               
an effective date."                                                                                                             
1:06:40 PM                                                                                                                    
NANCY  MEADE, General  Counsel, Administrative  Staff, Office  of                                                               
the Administrative  Director, Alaska  Court System,  advised that                                                               
she was  speaking today  on behalf of  the Alaska  Supreme Court,                                                               
and  explained  that HB  298  increases  the allotted  number  of                                                               
superior  court judges  by one  in the  First Judicial  District.                                                               
This legislation  is sponsored  by the  Alaska Supreme  Court and                                                               
while  it  is  similar  to  a governor's  bill,  this  is  not  a                                                               
governor's  bill,  it is  the  means  of  introducing a  bill  by                                                               
another branch of  government.  The Alaska Court  System does not                                                               
often propose legislation because  statutory changes usually call                                                               
for  policy   determinations,  which   is  squarely   within  the                                                               
providence  of  the  legislative   branch  of  government.    She                                                               
explained that, 2011  was the last time the  court system offered                                                               
a bill  which, amended  this same statute  to add  two additional                                                               
judges  for   the  Third  Judicial  District.     Typically,  she                                                               
explained,  the  court  system  would  handle  its  own  staffing                                                               
changes  and  classifications  of  positions  because  those  are                                                               
internal  administrative matters  the  court deems  best for  its                                                               
caseload.  Ms.  Meade described this situation  as unique because                                                               
AS 22.10.120 determines the number  of superior court judges, and                                                               
the  Constitution of  the  State of  Alaska  determined that  the                                                               
number  of superior  court  judges are  set  by the  legislature;                                                               
however, that is not true for district court judges.                                                                            
1:09:14 PM                                                                                                                    
MS. MEADE  reminded the committee  that last week,  Chief Justice                                                               
Craig Stowers  pointed out  that, for a  number of  years, Juneau                                                               
has had the second highest  number of superior court case filings                                                               
per superior  court judge in  the state.   The highest  number of                                                               
filings is  in Anchorage, except  comparing those numbers  is not                                                               
exactly   apples-to-apples  because   Anchorage  utilizes   other                                                               
resources,  and for  efficiency  reasons some  judges hear  civil                                                               
cases  and  some judges  hear  criminal  cases. Given  this  high                                                               
number  of  cases  per  each Juneau  superior  court  judge,  and                                                               
despite  their best  efforts the  cases are  slowed down  wherein                                                               
they may  not have the  time on  their calendars to  schedule the                                                               
necessary hearings  as quickly  as they  could, and  written work                                                               
products  are delayed  when  coming out  of  the Juneau  Superior                                                               
Court, she offered.                                                                                                             
MS.  MEADE related  that  the court  system  has recognized  this                                                               
problem for some  time and in 2014-2016, it had  a capitol budget                                                               
request  to add  a  new  courtroom to  the  Juneau Courthouse  to                                                               
accommodate visiting judges because  sometimes the Juneau sitting                                                               
judges were using  the courtrooms so scheduling  for the visiting                                                               
judges was  difficult.   Those requests  to the  legislature were                                                               
not successful, and instead, the  court redistributed those cases                                                               
and it dealt  with the existing courtrooms.  In  that regard, the                                                               
Presiding  Judge   of  the  First  Judicial   District  has  been                                                               
traveling to  Juneau to assist  in the Juneau caseload.   Except,                                                               
she said, that  judge resides and handles  the Ketchikan Superior                                                               
Court cases, but  he has taken about one-third of  the civil case                                                               
filings  from the  Juneau  Superior Court,  absorbed  all of  the                                                               
administrative  appeals   in  the  Juneau  Superior   Court,  and                                                               
regularly  handles large  felony  cases that  would otherwise  be                                                               
handled by  the Juneau Superior  Court judges.  She  advised that                                                               
the presiding  judge handles  many issues by  video, but  he does                                                               
travels  for the  hearings that  must occur  in person,  thereby,                                                               
accruing travel costs  the court system hopes to  eliminate.  She                                                               
stressed that she  was not implying the  presiding judge's travel                                                               
costs would cover  the increased costs being absorbed  by the new                                                               
1:12:12 PM                                                                                                                    
MS. MEADE  pointed out that  the Ketchikan judge's  caseload does                                                               
not  stop when  he is  on-the-road  handling Juneau  cases.   She                                                               
pointed out that due to  the presiding judge's expansive sense of                                                               
responsibility  toward his  Juneau colleagues  and litigants,  he                                                               
works  "pretty  much"  all  Saturdays and  rarely  gets  a  break                                                               
because he  still has his  normal caseload while taking  on these                                                               
extra  cases.   The  presiding  judge  tries  to limit  a  Juneau                                                               
judge's caseload  travel to have one  of the other judges  in the                                                               
district travel.   This, she described, is a  stop-gap measure to                                                               
stop  the problem  from progressing  too fast,  but it  is not  a                                                               
sustainable  model.   The  court  system is  looking  for a  true                                                               
solution to  the problem  rather than  just the  current band-aid                                                               
fix in utilizing visiting judges.                                                                                               
MS. MEADE advised  that the solution presented  itself with great                                                               
timing in  that Juneau  currently has  two superior  court judges                                                               
and two district  court judges, and one of  the existing district                                                               
court  judges announced  his plan  to retire  effective June  29,                                                               
2018, at  the end of the  fiscal year.  The  Alaska Supreme Court                                                               
decided  this was  ideal timing  to  seek to  have that  district                                                               
court  judge seat  filled  by  a superior  court  judge rather  a                                                               
district  court judge.    In the  event HB  298  is enacted,  the                                                               
Alaska  Judicial  Council will  advertise  for  a superior  court                                                               
judgeship  for that  retiring district  court  judge's seat,  and                                                               
three superior court judges and  one district court judge will be                                                               
the  model.   Superior court  judges have  statewide jurisdiction                                                               
over  all trial  level work,  whereas the  district court  judges                                                               
have a  subset of that  jurisdiction.  Generally,  she explained,                                                               
superior  court judges  handle  felonies, child  in  need of  aid                                                               
(CINA)  cases,  domestic relations,  and  civil  cases where  the                                                               
amount  being  argued  is  over  $100,000,  which  is  where  the                                                               
bottleneck is  in Juneau.   By comparison, district  court judges                                                               
handle only  misdemeanors, domestic violence protective  orders -                                                               
not domestic relations,  and civil cases below  $100,000, as well                                                               
as minor  offenses such  as citations, traffic  or fish  and game                                                               
tickets.  Changing this seat  to a superior court judgeship means                                                               
those  judges will,  and  have agreed  to,  handle some  district                                                               
court casework, she said.                                                                                                       
1:15:21 PM                                                                                                                    
MS.  MEADE explained  that the  change from  that district  court                                                               
judge to a superior court judge will  also mean a big drop in the                                                               
number of filed cases assigned  to each superior court judge, and                                                               
that those  three superior court  judges will assist  in district                                                               
court cases.   Moreover,  she offered, for  the past  many years,                                                               
Juneau's  magistrate  judge   position  has  basically  performed                                                               
"master  work"  in  assisting  the  superior  court  judges  with                                                               
preliminary hearings and case file  preparations to lighten their                                                               
workload.  In the event HB  298 is enacted, that magistrate judge                                                               
position will  segway into more typical  magistrate judge duties,                                                               
which is helping  district court judges with  citations and minor                                                               
offenses.  Therefore, she pointed  out, with these two additional                                                               
ways of  handling the  district court's  cases, the  court system                                                               
does not  anticipate any negative  impact to the  district court.                                                               
Indeed, she offered,  this change will put  Juneau almost exactly                                                               
the same  as Kenai,  the three  and one model,  in terms  of both                                                               
superior and district court case filing numbers.                                                                                
MS.  MEADE referred  to fiscal  impacts and  explained that  this                                                               
current timing  makes it  possible for the  court system  to make                                                               
these changes with a zero-fiscal  note.  The only additional cost                                                               
this change would  cause is the difference in  salary between the                                                               
district  court  judge and  the  superior  court judge,  and  the                                                               
required   benefits.     She  offered   that   that  amounts   to                                                               
approximately $35,500 and  the court system is  willing to absorb                                                               
that  cost.   Typically,  she explained,  when  the court  system                                                               
requests  a  new  judge,  the   new  judge  receives  a  judicial                                                               
assistant, law clerk, in-court  clerk, and sometimes construction                                                               
funds  for the  new chambers.   In  this case,  she pointed  out,                                                               
because the change  is due to the retirement of  a district court                                                               
judge, the  change will not  require any additional  resources at                                                               
this time in  terms of office space,  security officers, in-court                                                               
clerk,  existing  judicial  assistants,  and  law  clerks.    The                                                               
$35,500 figure  can be absorbed  within the court  system through                                                               
the  savings  it has  achieved  through  attrition and  where  it                                                               
tightened its  budget.  The  Supreme Court, the  presiding judge,                                                               
and  the Juneau  judges  all  believe this  will  work,  it is  a                                                               
"terrific  solution" which  will benefit  litigants and  everyone                                                               
without any downside, she stressed.                                                                                             
1:18:27 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE KREISS-TOMKINS offered  appreciation for the court                                                               
system's  usual  orientation  toward  efficiency  and  frugality.                                                               
Without  fail, he  said,  he has  found the  court  system to  be                                                               
inspiring,  if  not a  lesson,  to  how  a branch  of  government                                                               
delivers responsible  essential services  to Alaskans.   He asked                                                               
whether this is  the one-time Ms. Meade is testifying  on a piece                                                               
of legislation that the court system is not neutral.                                                                            
MS. MEADE advised that the court  system is not neutral, it is in                                                               
favor of this legislation that the court system is sponsoring.                                                                  
1:19:32 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE LEDOUX related  that she likes HB 298,  and if all                                                               
of the  departments ran their budgets  in the same manner  as the                                                               
court  system, the  state  would  probably have  much  less of  a                                                               
fiscal problem.  She described that  the court system is "so pro-                                                               
active about  things" and  this bill is  doing what  is discussed                                                               
all of the time, which is looking outside of the box.                                                                           
MS.  MEADE thanked  Representative  LeDoux and  advised that  she                                                               
will  pass  her  comments  on   to  those  who  make  the  budget                                                               
1:20:44 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE  EASTMAN  asked  that  if  estimates  were  overly                                                               
optimistic and  additional staff was required  after this change,                                                               
would the court  system come back to the legislature  to fix that                                                               
issue or could it be handled internally.                                                                                        
MS. MEADE  answered that  the court system  is currently  able to                                                               
handle  this change.    Possibly, in  a couple  of  years if  the                                                               
caseloads  differ  significantly  or something  happens  and  the                                                               
court system decides  an additional law clerk  is appropriate, it                                                               
could take  that on without  coming back to the  legislature, she                                                               
advised.  The  court system is in front of  the legislature today                                                               
solely due  to the fact  that superior court judge  positions are                                                               
set  by law  under the  constitution.   The court  system's other                                                               
positions  can be  readily  filled  or not  filled  as the  court                                                               
system deems appropriate and efficient, she remarked.                                                                           
1:21:48 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE EASTMAN  surmised that  this is  Plan A  and asked                                                               
her to explain Plan B if this bill does not pass.                                                                               
MS.  MEADE   reiterated  that  with  the   district  court  judge                                                               
retiring, if the  legislature does not pass this  bill, the court                                                               
system  will   advertise  that  position  as   a  district  court                                                               
judgeship  again  and  will  continue  as it  has  in  the  past.                                                               
Probably, she said, that Ketchikan  presiding judge will continue                                                               
to  be willing  to  travel to  Juneau  to take  on  some of  that                                                               
caseload.  Except, the court  system believes that plan may cause                                                               
it to get even deeper into the  backlog hole.  Plan B could carry                                                               
a heavier  fiscal impact  next year that  the court  system would                                                               
not be able to absorb, she pointed out.                                                                                         
1:23:05 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE EASTMAN asked whether Plan  C would be to have the                                                               
current positions  filled and then  adding one  additional judge.                                                               
He asked her to contrast this bill with Plan C.                                                                                 
CHAIR  CLAMAN  asked  whether  he  meant  the  fiscal  difference                                                               
between adding  a superior  court judge and  having to  fund that                                                               
superior court position  as opposed to doing it  without a fiscal                                                               
REPRESENTATIVE EASTMAN said that he  understands there would be a                                                               
fiscal  note there,  and he  asked  whether there  are any  other                                                               
factors that would  weigh against "going that  route," other than                                                               
the fiscal impact.                                                                                                              
MS. MEADE stated that she  may not understand his question fully,                                                               
but if  HB 298 does  not pass, the  court system would  fill that                                                               
retiring  judge's seat  with another  district  court judge,  and                                                               
next year the court system would  try again for a superior judge.                                                               
However, she  reiterated, [that plan] might  require the addition                                                               
of a judge's chambers and  additional resources causing the court                                                               
system to not accomplish that "for free."                                                                                       
CHAIR CLAMAN instructed Representative  Eastman that he concurred                                                               
with  Ms. Meade  in that  his  question was  vague and  ambiguous                                                               
beyond the fiscal impacts.                                                                                                      
1:24:30 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE EASTMAN opined  that, if the state had  all of the                                                               
money in the  world and had all the judges  the state might need,                                                               
and "we were to have both  a district and a superior court judge,                                                               
that under this bill we wouldn't  be having because we would just                                                               
be choosing  to have one of  those options," he asked  what would                                                               
be some  of the benefits or  downsides both for and  against that                                                               
MS. MEADE  pointed out  that the  more judges  the state  has the                                                               
faster cases could be handled.   Except, she further pointed out,                                                               
the justice  system is  an intricate web  and if  the legislature                                                               
determined  the  court  system should  have  additional  superior                                                               
court  judges  and district  court  judges,  that decision  would                                                               
impact  all of  the  different agencies  practicing  in front  of                                                               
those judges.   Therefore, it may not move cases  faster if there                                                               
were  not  enough  public   defenders,  district  attorneys,  OCS                                                               
attorneys, and  so forth, to  bring those  cases.  At  this time,                                                               
she reiterated,  it is  the decision of  the presiding  judge and                                                               
the Supreme Court that HB 298  will best help the court system to                                                               
efficiently handle  the Juneau caseload,  and that is  the number                                                               
one priority in  terms of where the resource is  needed that will                                                               
most impact the overall caseloads.                                                                                              
1:26:03 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE EASTMAN said he understands  that the court system                                                               
is making  projections based on  its best  information available.                                                               
He said  that there  have been other  testimonies that  the state                                                               
does  not have  enough  prosecutors or  enough  resources in  the                                                               
Department of  Law (DOL) to  handle all of the  complaints coming                                                               
forward.  He  asked how much extra bandwidth is  offered under HB
298  if next  year  and in  the future,  there  is a  significant                                                               
increase in complaints and prosecutions coming from the DOL.                                                                    
MS. MEADE  said that she  thinks she understands his  question to                                                               
be asking  whether, even if this  were to pass, the  court system                                                               
had  enough resources  to handle  what  might be  an increase  in                                                               
cases.   She advised  that the court  system determined  that the                                                               
existing statewide judgeships are  sufficient in handling what it                                                               
believes will  take place.   In the  event that does  not happen,                                                               
she  said that  she  supposes it  will be  handled  in the  court                                                               
system's ordinary course of business,  assess what was happening,                                                               
and think  of a solution  in terms  of budget increments  for the                                                               
next  year.   Currently,  she  said, looking  at  what the  court                                                               
system  understands  to  be  the   other  agencies  requests  and                                                               
caseload trends,  this judgeship is  all that is needed  in terms                                                               
of  judicial  resources to  handle  what  may  be coming  in  the                                                               
1:27:58 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE LEDOUX  asked that because there  are two superior                                                               
court judges  in Juneau  whether the court  system is  ever faced                                                               
with  litigation wherein  the judges  were  preempted out,  which                                                               
ends up costing more money.                                                                                                     
MS.  MEADE agreed,  and  she said  that  this legislation  should                                                               
prevent other judges  from traveling to Juneau  when both parties                                                               
exercise  their   preemptory  challenge.     She   related  that,                                                               
currently if  both judges get  "bumped or challenged" by  the two                                                               
different parties, a  judge from elsewhere in  the district would                                                               
travel to Juneau.   Having three superior court  judges cuts down                                                               
on the possibility that would take place, she remarked.                                                                         
1:29:02 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE  KREISS-TOMKINS requested  a  ballpark figure  for                                                               
the frequency in which both judges are preempted in Juneau.                                                                     
MS.  MEADE answered  that, "big  ballpark,"  it is  not a  common                                                               
occurrence at all.  The  Juneau judges do not experience "blanket                                                               
bumps"  where an  agency decides  it will  always bump  a certain                                                               
judge out.   She said  that that might  happen in other  parts of                                                               
the  state  at  times,  but currently  [Juneau]  judges  are  not                                                               
routinely or often challenged by the parties.                                                                                   
1:29:53 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR  CLAMAN  opened   public  testimony  on  HB   298.    After                                                               
ascertaining no  one wished to  testify, closed  public testimony                                                               
on HB 298.                                                                                                                      
1:30:36 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE EASTMAN  commented that he will  be supporting the                                                               
bill at  present.  He  voiced a  concern about what  happens when                                                               
the  "7,000 or  so  cases"  not prosecuted  this  past year,  are                                                               
prosecuted once there  are enough to resources to  prosecute.  He                                                               
said  he has  concern the  judicial resources  necessary are  not                                                               
appropriately anticipated.   While  this is somewhat  cosmetic as                                                               
far as  the change, he  described that he understands  the number                                                               
of judges is  not particularly being reduced.   There are aspects                                                               
of that  which speak  to the  fact that the  state does  not need                                                               
more judges, and he was unsure  that would be case going forward,                                                               
he said.                                                                                                                        
1:31:35 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE  MILLETT echoed  Representative LeDoux's  comments                                                               
in that she  also wishes all of the departments  in the state ran                                                               
as efficiently and  aware as the Alaska Court System.   The court                                                               
system does  a fantastic job,  it is  always open, and  she trust                                                               
that when it  comes to the legislature to ask  for something that                                                               
it  out of  a  true need.   She  expressed  appreciation for  the                                                               
openness  of  the  court  system  with  the  judicial  branch  of                                                               
government  bringing   a  bill  to  the   legislative  branch  of                                                               
government.    That  openness  is   important  and  she  will  be                                                               
supporting HB  298 as it  moves forward and that  she understands                                                               
the judges  are under constant time  constraints while performing                                                               
an excellent  job.   She reiterated  admiration for  the judicial                                                               
branch and how it works together with the legislative branch.                                                                   
1:32:31 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE KOPP  said that  he echoes  Representative Millett                                                               
and clearly,  the only real  cost down the  road will be  a small                                                               
offset for  the judicial retirement  system increase.  That  is a                                                               
modest price to pay for  the efficiency of that upgraded position                                                               
and  what it  will mean  to Southeast  Alaska, he  remarked.   He                                                               
suggested  that  if  Representative  Eastman  was  sincere,  that                                                               
Representative   Eastman  could   bring  a   $250,000  House   of                                                               
Representative floor amendment to add another judge.                                                                            
1:33:16 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR CLAMAN  commented that  on a more  personal level,  when he                                                               
was  younger and  working in  Juneau in  the court  system, there                                                               
were two  superior court  judges, one  district court  judge, and                                                               
one magistrate  judge.  The district  court would see a  fair bit                                                               
of the  magistrate and a  fair bit  of the district  court judge,                                                               
and  there  was the  sense  that  if  things  got busy  and  more                                                               
complicated that adjustments  would have to be made.   That model                                                               
led the court system, several years  ago, to add a district court                                                               
judge to address that caseload.   This legislation, he described,                                                               
is  a  pro-active recognition  of  the  realities of  the  Juneau                                                               
caseload and it addresses that  issue effectively "without having                                                               
to  do a  build  out to  the  court system"  or  start leasing  a                                                               
courtroom in another building and  all of the building that might                                                               
be required to  make that take place.  He  complimented the court                                                               
system in being pro-active and  figuring out solutions consistent                                                               
with the  financial challenges the  state faces.   He said  he is                                                               
pleased to support HB 298.                                                                                                      
1:34:21 PM                                                                                                                    
REPRESENTATIVE  KREISS-TOMKINS moved  to report  HB 298,  Version                                                               
30-LS1279\A out of committee  with individual recommendations and                                                               
the accompanying fiscal notes.   There being no objection, HB 298                                                               
passed from the House Judiciary Standing Committee.                                                                             

Document Name Date/Time Subjects
HB298 ver A 2.14.18.PDF HJUD 2/14/2018 1:00:00 PM
HB 298
HB298 Sponsor Statement 2.14.18.pdf HJUD 2/14/2018 1:00:00 PM
HB 298
HB298 Supporting Document-Case Filing Data 2.14.18.pdf HJUD 2/14/2018 1:00:00 PM
HB 298
HB298 Fiscal Note JUD-ACS 2.14.18.pdf HJUD 2/14/2018 1:00:00 PM
HB 298
HB298 Fiscal Note DPS-DET 2.14.18.pdf HJUD 2/14/2018 1:00:00 PM
HB 298