Skagway magistrate Susan Reed retired at the end of July. Since then, the court has been without a local judicial officer. And that position isn’t set to be filled any time soon. Court system officials say the long-term plan is for a magistrate judge in Haines to handle cases from both Upper Lynn Canal communities.
In a time of shrinking budgets, the Alaska Court System is looking at ways to save money while still serving rural courts.
Haines was one of the first communities in Southeast to feel the effects of court budget cuts. When its longtime magistrate retired in 2016, the position was not filled right away.
Now, Skagway is in the same position. Magistrates are judicial officers who preside over cases most common for small towns, like minor offenses and protective orders. Since Reed’s resignation, Skagway hearings are being handled remotely by magistrates in Yakutat and Wrangell.
Trevor Stephens is the presiding superior court judge for the First Judicial District, which includes Haines and Skagway. He says the futures of both courts are connected.
“We’ll be looking at putting a judicial officer likely in Haines that would cover both Haines and Skagway,” Stephens said.
Instead of replacing both magistrate positions, Stephens says the plan is to eventually hire a full-time or close to full-time magistrate in Haines who would remotely serve Skagway. The timeline of when that would happen is unclear.
About eight months ago, the court system found a short-term staffing fix for Haines in retired judge and local resident Linn Asper. Asper is presiding over the Haines court part-time.
“He agreed to basically roll that over and continue for this current fiscal year,” Stephen said. “So that’s continuing.”
So, in the near future, Asper will continue in his role at the Haines court. In Skagway, the court system is hiring for a part-time clerical position. The clerk will be the only Skagway-based staffer. Day-to-day judicial proceedings will be handled by magistrates out of Yakutat and Wrangell for now.
“It’s [the state] budget,” Stephens said. “Given the case numbers, I don’t know that we would get approval to put another magistrate judge in [Skagway] for the time being.”
In fiscal year 2017, Haines had about double the number of district court case filings than Skagway. But Skagway did see a large increase in cases between 2016 and 2017. The number more than quadrupled, from 25 in 2016 to 115 in 2017. The majority of cases were classified as minor offenses and misdemeanors.
Clayton Jones provides administrative support for the First Judicial District. He held a community meeting in Skagway to talk about the court situation.
“We learned that although Skagway is small in numbers, they let us know that Skagway is an important community in Southeast Alaska,” Jones said. “They expressed concern about not having a local court presence and would like to see at a minimum a clerical presence in their community.”
Jones will hold a similar meeting in Haines on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. in the local court. He says he hopes to hear Haines residents’ feedback on court services in this time of transition.