What's Up With That

The Empire ponders Juneau's puzzles, unravels its mysteries and contemplates its conundrums.

Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2002

Q: What's up with the new large tower on Mount Robert Barron - the large mountain on Admiralty Island named after that young geologist who drowned? Is it for airport safety or just telephone communications? It is quite tall and easily visible from Auke Bay.

A: Loraine Thomas, land specialist for the Juneau Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, said the reader must have really good eyesight to see the new tower from Auke Bay, as the structure is located on the Mansfield Peninsula.

Thomas said the original tower was 15 feet tall but was recently replaced with one 50 feet tall. The U.S. Coast Guard uses the tower for search-and-rescue communication. Alaska State Troopers also use it. The new tower was needed to give better antenna separation to reduce magnetic interference.

Q: What is the difference between a magistrate and a judge, and why does Juneau have both?

A: "The distinctions vary from state to state," said retired Juneau Superior Court Judge Thomas Stewart. "In Alaska, magistrates are the lowest court level. ... They are oftentimes not legally trained, they serve the rural communities (like Haines, Skagway and Hoonah), (and) they have a limited jurisdiction."

According to information on the Web at http://www.state.ak.us/courts/ctinfo.htm (which contains a wealth of information about Alaska's judicial system), that limited jurisdiction allows a state magistrate to perform duties including:

• Hearing small-claims cases up to $7,500 in most instances.

• Hearing formal civil cases up to $7,500.

• Solemnizing marriages.

• Performing notary-public duties and recording vital statistics in some areas of the state.

• Hearing domestic-violence cases.

• Issuing summonses, search warrants and arrest warrants.

• Presiding at preliminary hearings in felony cases.

• Conducting trials and entering judgments in state misdemeanor cases if the defendant agrees in writing.

• Conducting trials of municipal and state traffic violations.

• Conducting extradition proceedings.

• Issuing writs of habeas corpus challenging the legality of a person's confinement.

• Handling cases involving children on an emergency basis.

Magistrates must be 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, and an Alaska resident for at least six months. They are appointed by the presiding judge of the judicial district in which they serve. Stewart served as presiding judge for 15 years. He said when the time came to select a magistrate, he would travel to the city or village the magistrate would serve and discuss the candidates with a wide range of citizens and local officials before making his choice.

Stewart said the magistrate serves an important role in smaller communities as the only representative of the judicial system.

Magistrates also can be found in larger Alaska communities with District Court or Superior Court judges. Stewart said in those cities - including Juneau - the magistrate handles some of the cases that fall under the above guidelines to ease the caseload of judges.

The federal court system also uses magistrates. According to the Federal Judiciary Web page, www.uscourts.gov, federal magistrate judges serve in each of the 94 district courts and are appointed by a majority vote of that court's judges.

Federal magistrates serve eight-year terms and they take care of routine tasks to allow district judges more time for trials, though their exact duties can vary from court to court. They may include holding misdemeanor trials or conducting pretrial motions and preliminary hearings for more serious cases.

There is a set number of federal magistrate positions nationwide - 494 as of 1994 - determined by the Judicial Conference of the United States with input from district courts and other federal judicial divisions and officials.

Send questions or comments to whatsup@juneauempire.com.

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