State of the Judiciary
On Wednesday, February 17, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address to the legislature. Typically, the State of the Judiciary address is before a joint session of the legislature. Because of safety protocols, however, the Chief Justice spoke to the Senate and the House watched by video feed.
The Chief Justice used his 30-minute speech to highlight the exceptional and unique challenges the judiciary has faced over the past year. The courts have worked to stay open to the fullest extent possible during the pandemic, but have had to adjust their systems because they remain fully committed to not putting the general public at risk.
While traditional jury trials were too risky to the public's health, the Alaska Court System accomplished the following from March 2020 to December 2020:
- 225,000 court hearings;
- 4,300+ hearings held before a judge; and
- 78,000 rulings and orders issued by judges.
The Chief Justice mentioned that these numbers are not far off from prior years data, meaning Alaskans are getting protective orders, divorces, criminal cases, and other legal matters resolved, even during these challenging times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the court system for the long-term. There's been a movement to telephonic/video hearings and document filing is moving largely to digital forms instead of the paper-heavy system. The Chief Justice said grand juries have moved to Zoom in order to keep felony criminal cases moving forward.
But not everything can be done remotely. For example, the constitutional right to face your accusers means that most jury trials cannot move online. The small size of courtrooms makes holding such trials in person difficult under current social distance guidelines (a misdemeanor can take 10+ people and felony trials 20+).
Beginning March 15, the courts are planning to resume in-person jury trials.
Find the full text of his speech here. You can watch Chief Justice Joel Bolger's full address here.