Alaska Chief Justice Dana Fabe identified five ambitions for future progress during her State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the state Legislature on Wednesday.
Fabe highlighted the gains of the state’s judicial system over the past decade before launching into the branch’s goals going forward.
“We are willing to embark in new directions when the time and circumstances warrant it,” Fabe said.
Among the gains made in the last 10 years, Fabe included the emergence of the CourtView system that makes access to court-related documents accessible online across the state.
Therapeutic courts around the state help reduce the rate of prisoners returning to jail repeatedly, and “help many Alaskans break the cycle of addiction to resume sober and productive lives,” Fabe said.
Fabe also pointed to the state’s family self-help center and an early resolution program that help resolve family law cases more efficiently than in the past as successes of the Judicial Branch.
These programs, and others, have produced results that are “nothing short of profound,” Fabe told lawmakers.
Still, the branch is not without goals going forward.
The state’s top judge said efforts are underway to provide greater service to litigants, and that officials are looking at ways to improve the jury duty system through a recently convened Jury Service Project.
“The aim is to reduce the burden of jury service, especially in communities with small pools of jurors and high rates of trials,” Fabe said.
Specifics being looked at include evaluating how many jurors are being called for specific types of cases, and ensuring rural Alaskans are not subject to significantly higher rates of being summoned for jury duty, Fabe said.
“Jury service is a cornerstone of our system of justice,” she said. “We must all do what we can to ensure Alaskans view it as a privilege of citizenship and not a burden to be avoided.”
The third and fourth areas of focus include is on developing more comprehensive service for parents and children in domestic cases, and improving resources for single-judge courts in rural areas, respectively.
“A child-custody battle can be a shattering event for a family,” Fabe said. “The adversarial system wasn’t designed to handle the sensitive and deeply personal issues arising out of family relationships.”
Fabe added that she is bringing together family law experts later this month for a child custody summit.
One or both parents represented themselves in more than 80 percent of child custody cases last year, she said.
Finally, the state is making it a priority to improve ruling times for cases across the board. Part of the increasing amount of delays can be attributed to a sharp increase in the number of criminal appeals, Fabe said.
“There can be no finality to a criminal conviction until the appeal is decided,” Fabe said. “Defendants, victims and their families are now left waiting years for their cases to be finally resolved.”
The length of delays could even “compromise public safety” because witnesses may not recall all details of the event in question or they may be unavailable to testify, Fabe added.
State agencies tasked with handling all sides of the appeal process may need temporary relief to break the apparent “appellate log-jam,” Fabe said.
“The quality of our stewardship won’t be judged by whether we solved every problem facing our justice system that history’s placed on our plate,” Fabe said. “Our efforts to be good stewards will be judged instead by whether we did all we could, with what we had, when it was our turn to make a difference.”