Rural towns in Alaska are adjusting to a court system hampered by state budget cuts. In the past couple years, as magistrate judges in small Southeast communities retire, the court system has held off on filling some of the positions. Court representatives visited Skagway, Haines and Hoonah recently. Staffing for the courts in all three communities is in flux.
On a recent Tuesday, Judge Linn Asper presided over routine hearings for 13 cases in the Haines court, mostly DUI and assault cases. About half of the defendants live in Haines, the other half are from Skagway.
But Judge Asper is here temporarily. He came out of retirement for this job. When he leaves the bench, will someone take his place? That’s a decision the court system will have to make. With a contracting budget, the answer isn’t a guaranteed ‘yes.’
“One of the issues that comes up, particularly in times of tight budgets, is we try to figure out what is the best way to deliver justice to rural communities?” said Wrangell magistrate Chris Ellis. She spoke at a community meeting in Haines.
A big part of delivering justice in small communities comes down to the local magistrate judge. Haines’ longtime magistrate retired in August of 2016. For a few months, a magistrate out of Yakutat handled Haines cases telephonically.
Police Chief Heath Scott says that was challenging.
“When we bring in defendants to the court and we have a judge from outside our community that’s representing the state over the phone, we have a DA that’s locally out of Juneau, it’s a little unnerving to be talking to so many people for such serious circumstances over the phone, and not have that local representation,” Scott said.
Scott praised Judge Asper, who offered to suspend his retirement after the Haines court had gone three months without a local magistrate.
“I’m fearful, as a representative of the community, when Judge Asper decides not to preside here anymore,” Scott said. “What that future looks like.”
Asper and court administrator Clayton Jones say a resident magistrate may be in Haines’ future. Skagway’s magistrate retired recently, which is bad news for Skagway, but could be good news for Haines.
Jones says the retirement may open funding for a Haines-based judge who remotely serves Skagway and Yakutat.
“That is the long-term goal,” Jones said. “That’s where we would like to be, is to have the judge here in Haines and serving Haines but also be remotely serving [Skagway and Yakutat.] “And it’s not the best for Skagway or Yakutat, but it would put a judge here and then a clerical presence in Skagway and Yakutat.”
Jones held a community meeting in Skagway a few weeks before the one in Haines. He said he heard similar concerns there – residents want a local magistrate.
But Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens, who presides over the Southeast district, has said it makes more sense to base a magistrate in Haines because of its heavier caseload.
Wrangell magistrate Ellis says many rural magistrates are reaching retirement age.
“Some of us have also been kind of wistfully thinking, ‘my kids are grown, there are other things we need to do with our lives too,'” Ellis said. “But we’re just hanging in here just because we want to make sure there’s a local presence in our community and wondering what’s going to happen in our communities too.”
If Ellis or other rural Southeast magistrates were to retire, those towns might face the same questions Haines and Skagway are dealing with right now. After all, court representatives say placing a magistrate in each community is no longer feasible.
The timeline for changes in the Upper Lynn Canal courts is unclear. Asper says he is open to presiding over the Haines court for another year. What happens after he leaves likely depends on the state financial plan.
Asper says if the court system continues to take budget cuts, all bets are off.