Local legal community aims to keep Alaska's federal courts open

As news spread this week the federal government is considering closing federal courts in Alaska, a consensus quickly emerged among Alaskan judges, attorneys and legislators the Last Frontier should be spared from the chopping block.

They say the reason should be obvious to anyone who lives in the largest, remote state in the nation — geography.

“This is one case where sometimes geography trumps economics,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement. “I can see why a few courthouses in an average-sized state can be reconsidered and possibly eliminated for cost. But Alaska is one-fifth the size of the entire country and 60 percent of our land is owned by the federal government, so leaving us with one active courthouse doesn’t add up.”

It may not in the way Murkowski turned a phrase, but it does add up in terms of actual dollars, according to one federal judge in Alaska. In, fact, reducing Alaska’s federal courts to just one would multiply the costs of doing federal legal business in Alaska by a factor of five, said Judge Ralph R. Beistline, who is based out of Fairbanks.

Beistline told the Empire on Friday his office conducted an internal study about five or six years ago examining how much it would cost to try a case in Anchorage instead of in Juneau, Ketchikan or Fairbanks.

“It would cost at least five times more to do so,” Beistline said, citing the extra cost comes from transporting witnesses, jurors, prisoners, attorneys and the like from all over the state to Anchorage.

Beistline declined to share the exact figures involved, but said he submitted the study outlining the cost considerations to one of the judges who will make a recommendation as to whether the courts should close, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit Alex Kozinski.

“I’m quite confident he’ll agree with me,” Beistline said, adding, “It’s just common sense.”

“They’re not looking at the unique facts in Alaska when they do studies like this,” he said. “They aren’t looking at the unique circumstances. I just don’t think they’ll conclude that it’s in the best interest in the courts or the community.”

A list of federal courts to be considered for closure went public Thursday morning after being released by the Associated Press. It lists 60 federal court facilities in 29 states, ranked in order of likelihood to close, with No. 1 on the list — a court in Beaufort, S.C. — most likely to close.

The federal court facility in Fairbanks is ranked No. 15; Ketchikan No. 25; and Juneau No. 37.

At the top of the list are facilities in South Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Mississippi.

David Sellers, a spokesperson for the federal courts based in Washington, D.C., said on Thursday the courts on the list are called “non-resident courthouse facilities,” which means that none of them have a full-time resident judge at that location, and that judges in larger cities travel to the non-resident courts in smaller cities when necessary.

“We’re not talking about large, active courthouses,” Sellers said.

Sellers said the AP obtained an internal memo from the Space and Facilities Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States that was sent out last month to the chief judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The memo contained a cost-benefit analysis for the potential closing of the 60 court facilities listed, and included their condition, operating cost and usage, Sellers said.

The 13 circuit judicial councils were asked to review the list and to recommend which courts should close to the committee by April 13, Sellers said.

Sellers said the committee would then send the report to the full Judicial Conference in December.

“This is a multi-step process, and we’re at the beginning,” Sellers said. “It’s a multistep process, (and) the ultimate decision will reside in the Judicial Conference of the United States.”

A similar list has been sent out periodically every couple of years since the 1990s for cost-saving reasons, but “because budgets have tightened so much in recent years, there’s a little more aggressive effort now as a cost-containment issue to explore this potential closure,” Sellers said.

He said the operating funds the federal courthouse receives from the U.S. Congress has been “unchanged” for the past three years.

“There’s been virtually no increase,” he said.

Still, looking to close the Juneau, Fairbanks and Ketchikan courts would be “short-sighted,” said U.S. Assistant Federal Defender Sue Ellen Tatter in an interview Thursday.

“I’m really distressed that nobody addressed that Alaska is different,” she said. “They would have to double the size of the (U.S.) Marshal’s budget because defendants have a right to be present, so they’re going to have to move all these people to Anchorage.”

Which might work, except there’s no federal prison in Anchorage. Neither Alaska nor Hawaii have federal prisons, and the federal government uses contracts with the state to house prisoners, she said. The nearest Federal Bureau of Prisons correctional complex is the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex about 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles, according to the Bureau’s website, though there is a Federal Detention Center in Seattle, and another detention center in northwestern Oregon.

“They really can’t handle all those prisoners in Anchorage — they’re overcrowded as it is,” Tatter said.

Tatter herself flies to Juneau for court proceedings about two to three times a month and she goes to Fairbanks every week, she said. Closing the courts would probably affect her office’s budget, but that’s not the real problem, she said.

“The problem is most of the people that appear in federal court are in jail,” she said. “It sounds good (to close) this place only has 22 cases a year, but then you got to move 20 prisoners, and in Alaska you have to move them by plane, and there has to be two marshals (per inmate) on a commercial flight.”

Ryan Philson, the U.S. Marshal in charge of prisoner movement operations in Alaska, said Thursday, “This would affect our prisoner movements and our expenses as well.”

He declined to elaborate further and referred questions higher to national headquarters in D.C., which did not immediately return phone calls.

When reached by phone Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt, who works on the same floor as the federal courthouse in Juneau, declined to comment, and referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Inquiries there were not immediately returned.

In Juneau, the federal court is located on the top floor of the Federal Building on West Ninth Street downtown.

A U.S. General Services Administration spokeswoman for the Northwest/Arctic Region, Stephanie Kenitzer, told the Empire on Friday the U.S. District Court occupies 7,247 square feet in the Federal Building and the annual operating cost is $39,533.

The deputy clerk of the Juneau court declined to say how many staff were employed there or how many cases were heard in the past year, and he referred questions to the Anchorage clerk’s office. Reached by phone Friday, the chief deputy clerk there, Jan Welch, also refused to say.

Murkowski’s Democratic counterpart, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, demanded answers from the powers that be in a statement his office released Thursday. He vowed to fight the potential closures.

“What’s the cost-savings, how many jobs are eliminated, and what’s the impact on residents who would have to drive hundreds of miles or buy an airline ticket to attend a court proceeding?” he asked. “It would be a disservice to Alaskans in these cities — to arbitrarily shut off their access to the federal courts. As this proposal continues being reviewed, I will do all I can to ensure that Alaskans are not mistreated by an ill-conceived idea.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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