While there is some natural tension between the branches of government, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe said Wednesday that improved communications and cooperative projects can make for a better working relationship.
"The judiciary and the Legislature share an interest in providing the citizens of Alaska with an efficient, cost-effective and accessible justice system," said Fabe, in the 29th annual address to a joint session of the Legislature by a chief justice.
Although there have been some high-profile disputes between lawmakers and justices, leading to a failed ballot initiative last fall, Fabe had a positive tone, which was largely reciprocated by some leading senators. She recounted collaborative efforts to allow default judgments against no-show traffic offenders, to build a new courthouse in Fairbanks and to require low-income convicts to repay the state for the cost of public defenders.
The judiciary must continue to do its part to demystify itself, Fabe said.
"Judges need to take a leadership role in reaching out to the public to provide education and to make our processes more understandable," she said. "To further promote judicial outreach efforts, the court is planning to conduct a 'Meet Your Judges' program in all 13 Superior Court locations throughout the state." One such program was held recently in Juneau.
Fabe also sought a collaborative approach to alternative judicial models.
In the therapeutic court model, "there is a focus on the defendant's underlying problem, whether drug or alcohol addiction or a mental health problem," she said. "An individualized plan is developed for a defendant, which usually includes drug or alcohol testing, treatment and such other requirements as attaining a GED, finding and maintaining a job and making restitution."
Three Alaska projects are based on this model, including a mental health court in Anchorage operating since 1998.
"As a result of their participation in this project, these mentally ill individuals are spending fewer days in expensive jail beds," Fabe said. She noted lawmakers have expressed an interest in therapeutic approaches for drunken drivers.
Fabe slipped in a few funding requests. The court system needs heightened security, including new officers, she said. And she asked for another legislative appropriation to complete purchase of an up-to-date computer system for case management.
Fabe also pledged to address the backlog in the appellate courts, adding: "While we are committed to handling these cases more expeditiously, we are also charged with giving each case and controversy the attention and time it deserves in this last stage of review."
Sen. Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican who sometimes has been irked by Supreme Court decisions, welcomed Fabe's acknowledgment of the backlog, saying sometimes guidance to the Legislature on key issues has been untimely. He called her "absolutely one of our brightest jurists."
"I welcome her offer of increased communication," he said.
Donley, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he's inclined to provide more money for the computer update but said lawmakers have approved "huge increases" in courthouse security.
Donley said therapeutic courts could be an interesting approach to crimes based on alcohol dependency. "I think it could be a very wise investment," he said.
Donley and some other Republicans in the Legislature have been sharply critical of the high court in recent years. In 1998, the court stepped in on two constitutional amendments the Legislature proposed for the general election ballot, rewriting one and striking another. Donley offered a constitutional amendment last year that would have prevented the court from taking similar actions in the future, but voters rejected it.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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