Alaska Chief Justice Winfree speaks to Legislature about the importance of protecting democracy

A man stands at a lectern at the front of a courtroom as people around him applaud
Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Winfree receives applause from legislators as he gives the annual State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday in the Capitol. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Winfree talked to the Legislature on Wednesday about the importance of protecting democracy and of maintaining the courts as an independent branch of government, in the annual State of the Judiciary address.

It was the 50th anniversary of the first time a chief justice addressed a joint session of the Alaska Legislature. Chief Justice Winfree spoke about calls for racial, economic and environmental justice then and today. 

“I was one of the young ones 50 years ago criticizing the establishment and fearing for democracy’s future,” he said. “Now I’m part of the establishment. But the current pain is just as visceral now as it was then. And I find myself wondering why we haven’t made more progress in the last 50 years.”

Winfree defended the independence of the judiciary from the two other branches of government. He said legislators take their responsibility of talking with constituents seriously. 

“We take just as seriously our duty to decide cases uninfluenced by our personal views,by the political left, center or right, or by prevailing public opinion,” he said. “That’s what the rule of law is all about.” 

He said judges are guided by the law, as well as the facts of each case.

“Our system of government will fail if judges rule in a litigant’s favor only because of who the litigant is, or what that litigant stands for or states [as] beliefs, or if judges try to make decisions following the swirl of then-prevailing public opinion,” he said.

Winfree also described the impact of COVID-19 on the courts. He said no courthouse closed, and much court business continued throughout the pandemic. 

Winfree acknowledged the long break in criminal jury trials, which restarted in January. He said it was challenging to safely accommodate the large number of people required in courtrooms for these trials.

The chief justice described some of the budget requests the court system is making. They include $1 million for computer upgrades to safeguard court information. The courts were the victim of a cyberattack last year, but Winfree said they have recovered from it, and that no personal information was taken. 

Another $1 million would mean public access to courthouse counters to get information could be restored on Friday afternoons. Budget cuts in 2015 closed them. 

Winfree also talked about how the court system is exploring the possibility of a new justice center in Bethel and a replacement building in Unalakleet.

“It remains our strong, strong intent to provide timely and effective judicial services in rural Alaska to the fullest extent possible,” he said. “And we will continue to look for ways to do that.”

Winfree did not address the debate over holding a constitutional convention, which Alaskans will vote on in November. 

But he did talk about the current constitution. He read from a resolution by the delegates to the first constitutional convention in 1955, addressed to Alaska’s children. 

“Take our constitution and study it. Work with it in your classroom. Understand its meaning and the facts within it. Help others to love and appreciate it,” he read.

Winfree became chief justice last year, and normally chief justices serve three years. But under the constitution, Winfree is required to step down next year when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.