Kenai Superior Court Judge Jennifer Wells

Kenai Superior Court Judge Jennifer Wells

Voices of the Peninsula: Pilot project for electronic filing enables courts to serve Alaskans during pandemic

Many emergency and priority court proceedings cannot wait until the pandemic is over

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand and temporarily change life in Alaska, state courts in Homer, Kenai and Seward are using a new electronic filing and document management system to fulfill the Alaska Court System’s duty of providing the essential service of accessible justice.

Although some court cases have been postponed, many emergency and priority court proceedings cannot wait until the pandemic is over. These include the initial hearings in criminal and child in need of aid cases, mental commitment proceedings, hearings for domestic violence restraining orders, quarantine enforcement proceedings, and other matters wherein irreparable injury would result if the court failed to take action.

In order to fulfill the court’s role of providing justice in these types of cases, the courts are staying open during this crisis. The clerks, judges, administrators, troopers and security officers who work in courthouses across the state recognize the vital impact of their work and are prepared to meet the needs of the public. But staying open during a global pandemic carries a cost. Many court system employees are unable to come to work because they are required to quarantine, lack child care, or must care for a sick relative.

I am happy to report that courts in the Kenai Peninsula are able to fulfill their duties to the public largely electronically, as a result of the adoption in May 2019 of an electronic filing and case management system for criminal and minor offense cases.

Although transitioning to electronic filing and electronic case files was not without challenges or growing pains, conducting court business electronically has eased the strains on our courthouses, staff, and the public during the Covid-19 crisis in several important ways.

Electronic filing and distribution eliminates the risk of virus transmission through paper handling and reduces traffic in courthouses, minimizing person-to-person opportunities for transmission of the virus. Most hearings are now handled by telephone, with only the judge in the courtroom, and electronic files allow judges to instantaneously share orders, seconds after making a decision. Judges who are quarantining can conduct hearings from home with full access to electronic case files.

The Alaska Court System’s mission is 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.

Chief Justice Joel Bolger told the Alaska Legislature earlier this year that the court system “maintains an unbreakable commitment to continue to deliver equal justice for all, no matter the obstacles we face.”

When these comments were made, no one knew that we would soon be facing a global pandemic, and the COVID-19 crisis is a significant obstacle to the operations of our state courts. I am thankful and encouraged that the Alaska Court System will continue to fulfill its mission through this challenging time with help from electronic filing and case management technology.

Jennifer Wells is a Superior Court judge in the Third Judicial District — Kenai.

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