Alaska chief justice expects another 3.5 percent drop in court system budget

Alaska’s chief justice told lawmakers Wednesday that he’s optimistic and hopes they will find a solution to the state’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Then again, “Candidly, I had a similar hope and expectation … last year,” he said.

Delivering the annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature, Alaska Chief Justice Craig Stowers said he expects to see a 3.5 percent budget cut to the state’s judiciary system this year.

If the Legislature accepts Stowers’ 3.5 percent drop, the court system’s budget will be 10 percent smaller than it was three years ago.

The 3.5 percent cut is equivalent to $3.6 million.

“For us, it’s a lot. For other agencies, perhaps, it doesn’t seem like as much,” Stowers said.

The cut will come with costs, Stowers said. Rural magistrates who retired or quit will not be replaced, though their court offices will remain open.

He added that “the processing of case filings … will be impacted to a modest degree. Some delay in services is an inevitable price to be paid.”

The court system is also absorbing the cost of implementing changes to the criminal justice system that were called for under Senate Bill 91 last year, and it is taking up the slack caused by the elimination of the Department of Law section that helped crime victims obtain restitution from criminals.

The court system is already closed on Friday afternoons as a cost-saving measure, and Stowers said those closures appear to be working well, with limited negative effects.

The chief justice said the court system can cope with a 3.5 percent budget cut this year, but anything more than that “will require draconian reductions that will harm a broad cross-section of Alaskans.”

Stowers said it’s “not his place” to advise the Legislature how to fix the state’s budget deficit, but he did say that “relying solely on cutting state government will not solve the problem.”

He concluded with a few words of encouragement.

“I know that you have a lot on your plate, but I believe you’ll be able to get to it this year,” he said.

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.

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