For the past three months, a magistrate judge based in Yakutat has covered Haines arraignments and other court proceedings. But this week, that changes. A retired district court judge and Haines resident volunteered to preside over the local court on a part-time basis. The situation is temporary as the Alaska Court System prepares for another round of budget cuts.
This was Linn Asper’s reaction when he found out that the Haines court was being staffed by a magistrate who doesn’t live here:
“I don’t think it’s fair to the community, a town this big, not to have a resident magistrate.”
And if anyone should know, it’s Asper. He served as the Haines magistrate about 20 years ago. Before that he was a district court judge in Juneau. Since then, he’s worked as an administrative law judge abroad and a part-time private practice lawyer in Alaska.
The Haines court situation changed in September, after longtime magistrate John Hutchins retired. To save money, the court system asked Yakutat Magistrate Mary Kay Germain to increase her hours and preside over Haines and Hoonah as well.
“Haines is an extremely busy court,” Germain said. “There’s always something going on.”
She was in town early in December for the last time in a while. That’s because Asper is coming out of retirement to serve as a temporary, or pro tem, judge in Haines.
“It just seemed like there was something I could do that would be good for me and good for Haines and the court system,” Asper said. “So I contacted Judge [Trevor] Stephens.”
“I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” said Ketchikan Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens, who presides over the First Judicial District, which includes Haines. “So we have somebody with a significant amount of judicial experience who actually lives in the community, that’s willing to work on a part-time basis.”
Stephens took Asper up on his offer. The temporary judge will work part-time, about 11 hours a week, usually on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.
“The plan is everything that would be normally scheduled — court trials, arraignments, all those sorts of things — would be scheduled when [Asper’s] on duty,” Stephens said. “So he would have the bulk of the work.”
Germain will still serve as a back-up magistrate for Haines.
“It will allow a face-to-face rather than telephone hearings,” she said.
Germain says taking Haines off her plate will significantly lighten her caseload. It’s the busiest out of the three courts she handles.
And since Asper is a district court judge as opposed to a magistrate judge, he could take on even more responsibilities. For example, he could preside over a jury trial instead of having a Juneau judge come to Haines, which is what usually happens.
“Certainly misdemeanor jury trials, I’ve done many, many, many and I can do more,” Asper said.
Since Asper is working limited hours, it’s uncertain whether he’d be assigned much more beyond day-to-day magistrate duties.
Asper started work on Monday. He says he’s been able to stay current on state legal changes since he’s maintained a private practice over the years. But he does need to familiarize himself with the new crime reform legislation, SB 91. And he’ll have to take a correspondence course for new magistrates.
“I think it’s a little ironic, because I used to teach magistrates that course when I was a district court judge,” he said.
Asper says he didn’t know what the response would be when he emailed Judge Stephens about filling the Haines magistrate role.
“Judge Stephens has been very good,” Asper said. “Because I know that he is concerned with leaving Haines sort of high and dry.”
Asper will be in place until the end of this fiscal year, June 30, 2017. What happens after that is uncertain. Stephens says he will advocate for bringing a resident magistrate back to Haines.
“Long-term, I personally want to have a magistrate judge sitting in Haines,” Stephens said.
He says the court system plans to request a 3.5 percent budget reduction from the legislature. But if lawmakers cut the budget beyond that, the impacts are hard to predict.