Alaska judges say they’re as busy as ever, even with jury trials suspended

Published: Nov. 25, 2020 at 7:33 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s Court System is open for business, despite some courtroom doors being physically closed due to the pandemic.

“Virtually all of us are on the record almost all day every day these days, so we’re busy,” said Judge Thomas Matthews. “We’re trying to do the public justice at every opportunity, but there is simply no shortage of people who need our services and we’re trying to meet that need.”

Statewide, the courts held 174,952 hearings between March and October, according to a release from the Alaska Court System. Many of those hearings were conducted by phone or video conference.

“Historically, the court system has been a very in-person process and people come to court and they access the court by coming in person,” said Judge Josie Garton, “and so we’ve had to radically transform the way that we deliver our services because that’s not possible in the same way anymore.”

The hearings that do happen inside courtrooms look different in 2020 than they have in years past. Few people are inside the courtroom, to allow for physical distancing. Participants are wearing masks. Plexiglass dividers have been installed to add more separation.

Wednesday, an order from Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger extended the suspension of criminal jury trials through March 15, 2021. In-person grand jury proceedings are suspended through Feb. 1, 2021, and in-person civil jury trials are suspended through Sept. 7, 2021, according to the order.

“Jury trials are certainly important, but it is important to understand that the vast majority of cases are resolved without a jury trial,” the release from the Alaska Court System states. “Judges’ dockets are full of cases involving divorce, custody, Child in Need of Aid, juvenile delinquency, protective orders, mental health commitments, guardianships, estates, small claims, minor offenses and civil lawsuits of all types. Judges are hearing criminal matters that can be conducted remotely including arraignments, bail hearings, change of plea hearings, sentencing and bench trials decided by a judge without a jury.”

According to the release, 3,530 trials were held in Alaska between March and October.

When it comes to the cases that will require a trial in front of a jury, Garton said judges recognize the impacts delays have on both defendants and victims.

“The court system is balancing some very, very important interests, including justice and including the public health and public safety, and we’re going to continue doing that to the best of our ability, but there’s no denying that this delay is occurring,” she said.

Delays leave some people waiting in custody, charged with a crime they have not been convicted of, in a country where citizens have the right to a speedy trial. It’s a situation that Garton says she believes could prompt legal challenges.

“That’s certainly something that is going to be litigated I think, or may be litigated,” she said. “In light of that, Judge Matthews and I really can’t say too much about it because we’re not permitted by the ethical rules that govern us to make a public comment about something that might be coming up in the courts, and I think it’s very possible that that will be coming up.”

Both Matthews and Garton credited hundreds of court employees for the courts’ continued operations.

“I think in many ways, these are the frontline workers who are making sure that the public is able to access justice,” said Garton.

“People read about a request from the governor for everybody to work remotely if they can, the court system can’t work remotely,” said Matthews. “That means everybody from the folks in the clerk’s office who are taking court filings to 95% of the judges that are here as well, I mean everybody in the court system is considered an essential worker, and they have all the same problems that are caused by the pandemic that everybody else does.”

Matthews said he believes in the phrase, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” He said he understands that court is stressful enough for people under normal circumstances and people are trying to be as forgiving as possible of each other as they navigate the system.

“The sheer pressures of everything that everybody throughout the state is feeling because of this pandemic are just, they’re extraordinary and absolutely unprecedented. I mean, the word is certainly used a lot, but I very much agree with it,” said Matthews.

Several courthouses in Alaska are handling customer services by appointment only. Alaskans are encouraged to visit the courts’ website for information about their location before going.

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