Thank you Ketchikan! Thank you Southeast Alaska! Thank you for your patience and understanding as the Alaska Court System navigates the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court system, per its mission statement, exists “to provide an accessible and impartial forum for the just resolution of all cases that come before it, and to decide such cases in accordance with the law, expeditiously and with integrity.” The pandemic has strained our ability to fulfill our mission. But it has not and will not stop us from doing so.
The court system has taken important proactive steps to insure that courts continue to function in a manner that provides necessary services while protecting the public, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, and our staff. The Alaska Supreme Court, the chief justice of the court, and the presiding judges of the four Alaska Judicial Districts have issued orders which have suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings as well as hearings in most civil cases through May 31, 2020, while priority hearings such as criminal arraignments and bail hearings, domestic violence protective order hearings, and certain child in need of aid hearings continue to be held by telephone or video-link, and judges may also hold such hearings in non-priority cases if a true emergency exists. Also all court filings in all cases continue to be accepted, and Judges are continuing to decide motions.
These orders also include provisions intended to reduce the need for in person interaction at the court clerk’s office. Pleadings are to be filed and served by email or fax if reasonably possible. This was a major change for courts outside the First District (Southeast Alaska) but we have been using e-filing and fax filing for several years. The court system can now accept on-line credit card/debit card payments for bail and filing fees. We in the First District have used a video link system between our court locations and also with the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau for several years, and we have the technical ability to do likewise with the Ketchikan Correctional Center, and we are now looking to use Zoom and similar technology to expand the opportunities for persons to participate in hearings by video.
We have signage at the court building providing information about how to access court services, including the courtroom conference numbers to call in for hearings, and email addresses for filing, and this information is also available on-line through the court system’s website and Facebook page and the Ketchikan court’s Facebook page. The court system website has a wealth of other COVID-19 related information, including the referenced orders. There have been national media reports about the impact of the pandemic on correctional facilities and populations. The Alaska Department of Corrections website has important information about the steps they are taking to address the situation.
We anticipate increasing the types of allowed priority telephonic and video-link hearings in the near future. And we are actively planning for when we will again be able to hold jury trials in criminal and civil cases, and grand jury proceedings. The right to trial by jury and the right to have the grand jury review charges in felony cases are fundamental constitutional rights, as is a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Victims have the right to have cases timely decided. And litigants have due process rights. We are very mindful of the need to be fully open for business. We are also very mindful of the need for safety. We do not want to be ahead of the science. We will move forward in a carefully planned deliberate manner and endeavor to keep the public informed as we do so.
“Visitor Alert — DO NOT ENTER THE COURTHOUSE IF YOU” signs in courthouse lobbies, elevators and corridors are instructions that would have been unfathomable a few weeks ago but now are part of the present COVID-19 reality in our communities. The need for such signage will pass. We will be back in the jury business. We are still communicating with jurors and need jurors to continue to fill out questionnaires. We are looking forward to the day that we can resume full operations in a safe manner. Until, thank you again for your patience and understanding.
Trevor Stephens is presiding judge of the First Judicial District.