Legislature(2019 - 2020)BELTZ 105 (TSBldg)

02/11/2019 01:30 PM JUDICIARY

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01:31:21 PM Start
01:31:57 PM SB41
02:00:35 PM Adjourn
* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
<Bill Hearing Canceled>
-- Testimony <Invitation Only> --
Heard & Held
-Invited Testimony Followed by Public Testimony-
             SB 41-NUMBER OF SUPERIOR COURT JUDGES                                                                          
1:31:57 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES announced  that the only order of  business would be                                                               
SENATE BILL  NO. 41, "An Act  relating to the number  of superior                                                               
court judges  in the third  judicial district; and  providing for                                                               
an effective date."                                                                                                             
CHAIR HUGHES stated her intention to hold SB 41 in committee.                                                                   
1:32:31 PM                                                                                                                    
NANCY  MEADE,  General  Counsel, Administrative  Offices,  Alaska                                                               
Court System, stated that SB 41  was introduced at the request of                                                               
the court system and would  increase the number of superior court                                                               
judges by converting two district  court judges to superior court                                                               
judges.  She   discussed  the  bill,  but   submitted  a  sponsor                                                               
statement for SB 41, which  read as follows [original punctuation                                                               
     The Alaska  Court System is  requesting a change  to AS                                                                    
     22.10.120  to increase  the  number  of superior  court                                                                    
     judges in  the state from  43 to 45.  Specifically, the                                                                    
     court  is  seeking  authorization  for  two  additional                                                                    
     superior  court seats  so  that  the existing  district                                                                    
     court  judgeships  in  Homer and  Valdez  can  each  be                                                                    
     converted to superior  court judgeships. Superior court                                                                    
     judges  have broader  jurisdiction than  district court                                                                    
     judges;  the  change  would allow  the  new  judges  to                                                                    
     handle a  greater variety of cases,  thus ensuring that                                                                    
     the caseload in the  Third Judicial District is handled                                                                    
     more efficiently and effectively.                                                                                          
     Currently, Homer  has one district court  judge, who is                                                                    
     planning to  retire on June  28, 2019. That  judge does                                                                    
     not  have  the  authority   to  handle  superior  court                                                                    
     matters,  such  as felony  cases,  child-in-need-of-aid                                                                    
     cases, and  family law  cases. Instead,  superior court                                                                    
     cases filed  in Homer are  handled by a  superior court                                                                    
     judge from Kenai who travels  there for that work. That                                                                    
     approach to  the caseload  is a  growing strain  on the                                                                    
     Kenai  judges, and  is not  a sustainable  or efficient                                                                    
     way to  handle the cases  on the Kenai  Peninsula. With                                                                    
     the current  judge retiring, this is  an opportune time                                                                    
     to  convert  that  seat  to  one  with  more  expansive                                                                    
     jurisdiction,  so  that  the one  judge  in  Homer  can                                                                    
     handle all the cases.                                                                                                      
     Similarly, the Valdez court  currently has one district                                                                    
     court judgeship,  and that  position has  been covering                                                                    
     all the  trial court cases in  Glennallen, Cordova, and                                                                    
     Valdez. That  Valdez district court judge  has now been                                                                    
     appointed to a judgeship  in Juneau. Having a dedicated                                                                    
     superior  court judge  in this  slot would  enable that                                                                    
     judge  to  cover  even more  coastal  communities,  and                                                                    
     would  provide flexibility  in handling  felonies, CINA                                                                    
     cases,  and  all  other filings  throughout  the  Third                                                                    
     Because  the  Homer  and Valdez  district  court  judge                                                                    
     seats are vacant or soon  will be, this bill is timely;                                                                    
     if  passed, the  solicitation for  applicants to  those                                                                    
     two positions will be for  a superior court rather than                                                                    
     a district court judge.                                                                                                    
1:34:06 PM                                                                                                                    
MS. MEADE further explained the  bill. She said this change would                                                               
replace  two district  court judges  with superior  court judges,                                                               
which would  give the ACS  more flexibility since  superior court                                                               
judges  can  preside  over any  trial  or  proceeding,  including                                                               
felony, divorce,  child-in-need-of-aid (CINA) and  probate cases,                                                               
but  district   court  judges  have  limited   jurisdiction.  The                                                               
district  court  judges  handle  misdemeanor,  domestic  violence                                                               
petitions and cases  with less than $100,000  in controversy, she                                                               
said. The  timing for  the conversion is  ideal since  the Valdez                                                               
district court  judge position is  vacant and the  district court                                                               
judge in Homer recently retired.                                                                                                
1:36:01 PM                                                                                                                    
MS. MEADE explained the current  superior court judge coverage in                                                               
Homer and Kenai.  She said having a superior  court judge preside                                                               
over  Homer cases  has  been problematic  for  many years.  Kenai                                                               
superior  court judges  have handled  Homer cases,  which average                                                               
over 300  per year. This has  not been the most  efficient use of                                                               
resources, she  said. In the  past two  years, a Kenai  judge has                                                               
traveled to  Homer more  than 35 times  to handle  superior court                                                               
cases that  arose. Typically, Kenai  judges schedule  Homer cases                                                               
one  week  per month,  but  the  court  schedule does  change  to                                                               
accommodate cases, such as an  emergency CINA case, divorce case,                                                               
or guardianship  case that arise  in Homer. Covering  Homer cases                                                               
also impacts Kenai cases since it  takes time away from the bench                                                               
for  the Kenai  judge, she  said. Further,  three superior  court                                                               
judges in  Kenai retired  in the  past year,  so Kenai  has three                                                               
relatively  new  superior court  judges.  This  provides a  great                                                               
opportunity to address coverage in  Homer, although if SB 41 does                                                               
not  pass the  court  would  continue to  operate  by having  the                                                               
district court judge cover the district court cases.                                                                            
1:37:45 PM                                                                                                                    
MS. MEADE said  the current Valdez district court  judge, who has                                                               
substantial experience,  has often  been appointed by  the Alaska                                                               
Supreme   Court  (ASC)   to  handle   superior  court   cases  in                                                               
Glennallen, Cordova, and Valdez,  or sometimes the Palmer judges.                                                               
That Valdez district court judge  was recently appointed to serve                                                               
as a superior court judge  in Juneau. The incoming district court                                                               
judge  in  Valdez  may  not have  the  experience,  ability,  and                                                               
willingness to  travel to cover  superior court cases so  the ACS                                                               
would like the changes [ in SB 41], she said.                                                                                   
She  related that  the court  considered alternatives,  including                                                               
encouraging or requiring videoconferences  in cases. For example,                                                               
the Kenai  superior court  judge has  a video  link to  the Homer                                                               
courtroom to  handle some matters.  However, not all  matters can                                                               
be handled  by videoconferences, since  the judge may need  to be                                                               
present for some  proceedings, such as cases  that will terminate                                                               
parental rights,  which have witnesses  appear before  the court.                                                               
Although videoconferences  have helped alleviate the  problem, it                                                               
has not  wholly relieved  it. The ACS  has also  considered other                                                               
options, including adding new superior  court judges, but the ACS                                                               
determined  it would  be costly  due to  capital costs  needed to                                                               
fund a  new courtroom  and office. Under  the bill,  the superior                                                               
court judges  will use the  same office equipment,  courtroom and                                                               
resources as the district court judge offices currently use.                                                                    
1:40:22 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR  HUGHES  asked for  further  clarification  that these  two                                                               
district  court judges  were the  last holdouts  of single  judge                                                               
locations. She asked  whether the ASC has  gradually been working                                                               
to replace district  court judges with superior  court judges who                                                               
can handle all cases.                                                                                                           
MS.  MEADE  said Valdez  and  Homer  have  been the  sole  courts                                                               
without a  superior court judge;  however, some locations  have a                                                               
sole superior  court judge, including Nome,  Kotzebue, Sitka, and                                                               
1:41:33 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR KIEHL  asked for further  clarification on the  number of                                                               
superior court cases in Valdez.                                                                                                 
MS.  MEADE answered  that  Valdez has  about  200 superior  court                                                               
cases.  Although  this  would  be   a  fairly-low  caseload,  the                                                               
proposed  superior court  judge  would also  handle all  district                                                               
court  filings  in Valdez,  Glennallen  and  Cordova. This  would                                                               
provide  the  ASC  additional   coverage  and  flexibility  since                                                               
Anchorage judges  currently handle cases  in rural areas  such as                                                               
Sand Point  and Unalaska,  which the  Valdez position  could help                                                               
cover.  Further,  the  superior   court  judge  in  Valdez  could                                                               
alleviate some pressure on the Palmer court, she said.                                                                          
1:43:03 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR  KIEHL   related  his   understanding  that   some  court                                                               
locations have  a magistrate. He  asked for the  effectiveness of                                                               
adding  a magistrate  to cover  low-level cases  and to  continue                                                               
with a district court judge.                                                                                                    
MS.  MEADE said  the higher-level  cases are  the ones  that need                                                               
attention, including  felonies and  CINA cases.  The ACS  has had                                                               
adequate  coverage for  minor offenses  and lower-level  cases in                                                               
the  district  court. She  reiterated  the  problem is  with  the                                                               
higher-level matters.                                                                                                           
1:44:27 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR REINBOLD  recalled that  this bill  topic was  heard last                                                               
year,  and she  is  supportive. She  asked  whether a  magistrate                                                               
could fill in.                                                                                                                  
MS. MEADE answered  that the magistrate judges,  including one in                                                               
Cordova, handle  minor offenses, such as  fishing violations. She                                                               
reported that  a half-time traveling magistrate  in Valdez spends                                                               
the remaining half-time  in Glennallen, due to  traffic cases and                                                               
hunting  violations.  She  reported that  the  magistrate  judges                                                               
typically handle  minor offenses,  such as  tickets, and  in some                                                               
instances  the  magistrate  can handle  misdemeanors,  which  can                                                               
alleviate pressure on the lower-end cases.                                                                                      
1:45:47 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR  REINBOLD  recalled  crime increases  in  Anchorage.  She                                                               
asked whether the proposed superior  court judge would be able to                                                               
handle criminal cases.                                                                                                          
MS. MEADE  answered that the  proposed two superior  court judges                                                               
can handle all felony and misdemeanor cases.                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES asked for further  clarification on whether district                                                               
court judges are limited and cannot handle felonies.                                                                            
MS. MEADE said that is correct.                                                                                                 
1:46:49 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR  HUGHES referred  to the  fiscal  note. She  asked for  the                                                               
salary  and benefit  cost comparison  between district  court and                                                               
superior court judges.                                                                                                          
MS.  MEADE  answered  that  that the  difference  in  salary  and                                                               
benefits is about $35.5 thousand  for one position or $71,000 for                                                               
both. The ACS would net back  the average travel cost for a total                                                               
fiscal note of $62,000.                                                                                                         
CHAIR HUGHES asked  for further clarification on  the base salary                                                               
for  a district  court  judge  and a  superior  court judge.  She                                                               
assumed  that   benefit  packages  would  be   similar  for  both                                                               
MS. MEADE  answered that  a district court  judge base  salary is                                                               
$160,848  and  a superior  court  judge  salary is  $189,720.  In                                                               
further  response  to  Chair  Hughes,   she  stated  the  benefit                                                               
calculation is one-third of the salary or $41,000.                                                                              
1:48:28 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES  related her  understanding that  the administration                                                               
would like  to increase videoconferences.  She asked  for further                                                               
clarification on when  it is necessary for a judge  to be present                                                               
during proceedings.                                                                                                             
MS. MEADE stated  that some court rules designate  when a witness                                                               
must participate  or when the  witness can opt  not to be  in the                                                               
room, depending  on some constitutional  and due  process issues.                                                               
Generally,  in   criminal  matters   a  criminal   defendant  has                                                               
constitutional  rights   to  be  present  whenever   evidence  is                                                               
presented  against them,  which would  apply to  trials and  some                                                               
hearings  with witnesses  present or  when evidence  is presented                                                               
against the defendant.                                                                                                          
1:49:21 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR MICCICHE joined the meeting.                                                                                            
1:49:36 PM                                                                                                                    
MS.  MEADE explained  that  a judge  has  judicial discretion  in                                                               
determining  the  level  of   witness  assessment  and  courtroom                                                               
demeanor necessary.  She suggested that judges  would likely want                                                               
to be  present for CINA cases  and for some child  custody cases,                                                               
to be  respectful to the parties.  She noted that in  those cases                                                               
numerous parties are involved so  the courtroom is often crowded.                                                               
She said  that being present  gives the  judge a better  sense of                                                               
what  is occurring  in the  courtroom. Judges  are likely  not to                                                               
feel the need to be  physically present at some routine hearings,                                                               
including trial-setting conferences.                                                                                            
1:51:09 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES recapped  that the judge would  have discretion over                                                               
cases, especially  civil cases, but  the judge would  be required                                                               
to  be  present  in  criminal   cases  where  evidence  is  being                                                               
presented or witnesses are part of the proceedings.                                                                             
MS. MEADE  said she was unsure  of precisely when a  judge needed                                                               
to be  present. She offered  to research the criminal  rules that                                                               
require videoconferencing but responded  that generally her recap                                                               
is correct.                                                                                                                     
1:52:07 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR  KIEHL asked  whether the  same number  of staff  will be                                                               
needed for the superior court judges.                                                                                           
MS.  MEADE said  the ACS  tried to  keep the  fiscal note  small.                                                               
Currently Valdez  has a one-half  time clerk  who fills in  as an                                                               
in-court  clerk.  If  additional in-court  clerk  resources  were                                                               
needed,  the  court  would  move   staff  from  other  locations.                                                               
Currently,  Homer has  2.5 or  3  positions who  act as  in-court                                                               
clerks.  She added  that district  court judges  do not  have law                                                               
clerks, but superior court judges  typically do. She acknowledged                                                               
that the  ACS was not seeking  law clerks but hopes  to use other                                                               
positions  to  fill  in  for  that and  to  use  e-mail  whenever                                                               
possible. The ACS  has been trying to be flexible  and change its                                                               
tradition of providing  a law clerk for each judge  due to budget                                                               
1:54:12 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR  KIEHL asked  for further  clarification  on whether  the                                                               
clerks would be from Anchorage or Kenai.                                                                                        
MS. MEADE explained  that initially the ACS would  likely use the                                                               
Kenai law clerks  for the Homer superior court  judge. In Valdez,                                                               
the current district court judge  has primarily performed without                                                               
a law  clerk, but when  needed called  upon a law  clerk, usually                                                               
from Palmer. She said that  it would depend on the circumstances,                                                               
that  it may  need be  figured out  informally and  flexibly, but                                                               
everyone thinks it should be able to work.                                                                                      
1:55:26 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES appreciated that the ACS  has taken the lead and has                                                               
been innovative in terms of the budget resources.                                                                               
1:55:43 PM                                                                                                                    
SENATOR  MICCICHE,  referring to  the  fiscal  note, related  his                                                               
understanding  that the  difference  in  personal services  would                                                               
likely be $35.5 thousand per superior  court judge for a total of                                                               
$71,000.  He related  the offset  of  $9,000 resulting  in a  net                                                               
savings  and a  total fiscal  note of  $62,000. He  asked whether                                                               
other efficiencies  that have not  been identified  could further                                                               
reduce the cost of these positions.                                                                                             
MS. MEADE answered  that the ACS estimated hard  travel costs but                                                               
subtracted $9,000  for travel costs  and an estimate  of accurate                                                               
savings, including  anticipating that more  videoconferences will                                                               
be held.                                                                                                                        
SENATOR MICCICHE  asked for any  efficiencies or benefits  due to                                                               
those sitting  in pretrial  status for less  time since  it would                                                               
reduce the caseload.                                                                                                            
MS. MEADE  said she did  not want to say  these changes in  SB 41                                                               
would  make  any difference  in  the  speed  in which  cases  are                                                               
processed. She  did not wish  to leave the impression  that cases                                                               
would be  handled faster but  rather to  change the way  in which                                                               
the ACS provides a judicial resource to handle those cases.                                                                     
1:58:43 PM                                                                                                                    
MS. MEADE recapped  SB 41. This bill has two  sections. The first                                                               
section  changes the  statute that  sets the  number of  superior                                                               
court judges  from 43 to 45  judges and the seats  will be filled                                                               
with superior  court judges. These  judicial seats  are currently                                                               
vacant, so  the timing is excellent.  The bill will give  the ACS                                                               
the opportunity  to increase the  way the court  system processes                                                               
cases  in  the  third  judicial  district  by  having  this  more                                                               
flexible way to cover cases.                                                                                                    
1:59:25 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES clarified that the  superior court judges can handle                                                               
1:59:47 PM                                                                                                                    
CHAIR HUGHES  opened public  testimony on SB  41 and  after first                                                               
determining no one wished to  testify, closed public testimony on                                                               
SB 41.                                                                                                                          
[SB 41 was held in committee.]                                                                                                  

Document Name Date/Time Subjects
SJUD Agenda 2.11.19.pdf SJUD 2/11/2019 1:30:00 PM
SB 41 version A.pdf HRLS 4/2/2019 11:30:00 AM
SJUD 2/11/2019 1:30:00 PM
SB 41
SB041 Sponsor Statement.pdf HRLS 4/2/2019 11:30:00 AM
SFIN 3/8/2019 9:00:00 AM
SJUD 2/11/2019 1:30:00 PM
SB 41
SB041-JUD-ACS-01-30-19.pdf HRLS 4/2/2019 11:30:00 AM
SJUD 2/11/2019 1:30:00 PM
SB 41