Alaska editorial: Split up 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Posted: Tuesday, October 19, 2004

This editorial appeared in Thursday's Ketchikan Daily News:

The critics say the idea to split up the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arose from "conservatives' ire" over some of the controversial court's rulings, according to reports from The Associated Press.

But everyone is "ired" when too many cases and too large a district bog down the justice system.

If, off the top of one's head, one were to come up with a list of where the most people are moving the fastest in the United States, one would quickly rattle off the names of the states in the 9th Circuit.

Nine western states comprise the 9th Circuit, whose 48 judges serve 56 million people. Under a proposal that will fail this election year (but come back again, we're sure), Alaska, Oregon and Washington would be transferred to a new 13th Circuit, while Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Nevada would be in a 12th. California and Hawaii would be in the reconfigured 9th Circuit.

It's a good idea, and House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner explained why very clearly when the idea passed in the House: "The Ninth Circuit has become so big - in geographic size, in workload, and in the number of its active and senior judges - that it can no longer appropriately discharge its civic functions on behalf of the American people," said the Wisconsin Republican.

If the overburdening of the court alone were not a good enough reason to split the circuit - and it is a good enough reason - the court's distance from the area it serves is another problem.

Our system is designed to have decisions made close to home. That's why it takes a special ruling to move a criminal trial out of the location where the crime occurred; the community has the right to see exactly how the wheels of justice turn. Alaskans, more than most, know how painful it is to have someone sitting far away making decisions for us, decisions for which they have no frame of reference.

The "distance" to Alaska is more than geographic. It's not that far, it could be argued in some far-south areas of our state, to San Francisco, where the 9th Circuit Court sits. But it is a long distance in more than miles.

Our lives are "foreign" to many who have never experienced Alaska; we've all been asked whether we "accept" U.S. currency; whether a person needs a passport to come to Alaska.

A court should rule based on the law. But in our system, judges bring their own wisdom and experience to the bench with them, not just knowledge of the words of the law.

They need to be closer at hand. The 9th Circuit needs to be split into a size that's manageable, in places where the court recognizes the issues in the cases it decides.

We need to have a court that can get its work done. The 9th Circuit can't.

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