Legislature(2005 - 2006)CAPITOL 106
03/03/2005 08:00 AM STATE AFFAIRS
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* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HB 103-CLAIMS AGAINST THE STATE 8:36:22 AM CHAIR SEATON announced that the next order of business was HOUSE BILL NO. 103, "An Act requiring an actionable claim against the state to be tried without a jury." 8:36:23 AM REPRESENTATIVE MIKE KELLY, Alaska State Legislature, as sponsor of HB 103, noted that the proposed legislation would change a state law back to its original form, wherein cases against the state were tried by a judge, rather than a jury. He said the state has a right to determine how it will be sued. He noted that in , at the request of the University of Alaska, the original law was changed to provide for jury trials when the state was sued. He opined that the use of a judge for trials against the state would be more appropriate, and he said the chief council of the university has been contacted and has no objection to [HB 103]. 8:38:07 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY said some of the problems that have arisen from the current law are that the state is seen as a "deep pocket" and, thus, suits against the state may be taken more casually than suits between parties other than the state. He said HB 103 would not limit access to the judicial system or limit the right to appeal. He stated his belief that HB 103 would provide adequate protections to those who would be aggrieved against the state. Furthermore, he said he believes the proposed legislation would reduce costs and increase efficiency of the state's court system, while protecting against awards by juries that seem "not to pass the laugh test." 8:39:43 AM HEATH HILYARD, Staff to Representative Mike Kelly, Alaska State Legislature, on behalf of Representative Kelly, sponsor, directed attention to a document included in the committee packet labeled, "Immunity." He noted that the first page of the document addresses sovereign immunity, while the rest of the document includes other types of immunities not pertaining to the bill. 8:41:49 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY, in response to a question from Representative Gruenberg, said he thinks that sometimes judges award greater liability and more significant recovery, while other times juries do so. 8:42:14 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG stated his understanding that in many cases people prefer to go to a judge rather than a jury, because juries, in many cases, tend to render smaller verdicts than judges. 8:43:41 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY said he thinks the heart of HB 103 is the issue of sovereign immunity. 8:44:40 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG remarked that it's tougher to get a verdict in a jury trial than in a judge trial. He said there are lots of strategic issues regarding when to go to a judge versus a jury. He noted that some of those issues are mentioned on the second page of the state's fiscal note [included in the committee packet]. 8:45:57 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY responded that he has been visited by trial lawyers in the state, and they have remained neutral. He reiterated that the heart of HB 103 is to protect the state in jurisdictions where "this may have been a problem." He mentioned aviation and search and rescue. He noted that there is a handout [included in the committee packet] showing samples of jury awards in four different cases. 8:47:10 AM ROGER GAY, testifying on behalf of himself, told the committee that he is from Big Lake, Alaska. He said, "If you let the state decide in favor of the state, you will forfeit the presumption of fairness." He stated his belief that if "the Miller Reach fire" had been tried by a judge, the state would not have prevailed. He said, "The jury did not seem to be able to separate their feelings of support for the fire fighters from the obvious incompetence of the state's handling of the fires." He posited that if the committee is trying to "tilt the scales of justice in favor of the state," it might be better off letting the jury make the decisions. Mr. Gay concluded that HB 103 would not benefit the state. 8:48:49 AM DOUG WOOLIVER, Administrative Attorney, Administrative Staff, Office of the Administrative Director, Alaska Court System, told the committee that he worked together with Gail Voigtlander from the Department of Law (DOL) to figure out that there are an estimated four jury trials a year where the state is a defendant, and each of those trials costs an average of $4,000. He noted that that money would be saved if the trial had been in front of a judge. Mr. Wooliver emphasized that the court has a decades-old tradition of not supporting or opposing legislation and does not support or oppose HB 103. He said he merely wanted to explain the fiscal note. 8:50:49 AM MR. WOLVER, in response to a question from Representative Gatto, explained that the cost of a jury trial is explained in part by the fact that jury trials typically take longer than court-tried trials. He said the big savings is not getting rid of time, but getting rid of the jury fees. 8:53:48 AM CHAIR SEATON, in response to Representative Gruenberg, asked that questions regarding the detailed interactions of the court be taken up in the House Judiciary Standing Committee. 8:54:37 AM REPRESENTATIVE GATTO suggested that [HB 103] would put a single person in the position of being "judge, juror, and executioner." 8:55:06 AM MR. WOOLIVER said he supposes it would, but judge-tried trials are a regular part of the system. He said, "The judge is the fact finder in those cases, as opposed to a jury." 8:55:34 AM MR. WOOLIVER, in response to a request from Chair Seaton to clarify what an actionable claim against the state would be, said [HB 103] would cover civil claims where the state is the defendant. 8:55:52 AM CHAIR SEATON closed public testimony. 8:56:32 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG said he was practicing law when the law was changed in , and some cases were better tried by judges, while others were better before juries. He recommended allowing the decision to be made on a case-by-case basis. 8:58:35 AM REPRESENTATIVE GARDNER recommended being careful in reading the previously mentioned sample jury awards, because the specifics of the case are not provided. 8:59:31 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY said the point made by Representative Gruenberg about the sovereign maintaining the option of choosing is not unusual in the U.S. He said, "It goes all the way from very restrictive in the U.S. to actually quite permissive." He reiterated that HB 103 would not take away the option for appeal. 9:00:56 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG said the legislature can decide which types of cases a person can sue the state over and whether or not there will be a jury. He said the national historical trend has been to allow states to be sued by jury trials. He asked if there are any other states that Representative Kelly is aware of that have allowed a jury trial and then taken away that jury trial after some time. 9:02:32 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY said he doesn't know. 9:02:45 AM MR. HILYARD said Article 2, Section 21, in the Alaska State Constitution notes that a few state constitutions still prohibit all suits against the state. He offered some history regarding the law in question. 9:04:22 AM REPRESENTATIVE GRUENBERG indicated that the case involving the university [back in 1975] highlights his previous point that defendants often want juries. 9:04:52 AM REPRESENTATIVE KELLY urged the committee to pass HB 103 out of committee. 9:05:00 AM REPRESENTATIVE ELKINS moved to report HB 103 out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying fiscal notes. There being no objection, HB 103 was reported out of the House State Affairs Standing Committee.