Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter Maassen delivered his first State of the Judiciary address Wednesday to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature.
“The state of the judiciary is, in a word, good,” Maassen told lawmakers.
Maassen moved to Alaska shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981. He was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2012 after a long career primarily in private practice. Last year, his fellow justices selected Maassen to succeed retiring Chief Justice Daniel Winfree.
During the half-hour address, Maassen ticked through a variety of success stories from the past year that he said improved the court system’s accessibility and efficiency.
He spotlighted several measures courts implemented during the pandemic, including remote hearings, electronic filing and changes to jury selection procedures. He pointed to a Supreme Court order that took effect in November making many court hearings remote by default.
“For example, most evidentiary proceedings and criminal cases and other types of cases that involve trial, or evidentiary hearings, are presumptively in-person, whereas a lot of hearings involving things like the status of discovery and scheduling and settlement are presumptively remote,” he said.
He said jails across the state had upgraded equipment to allow prisoners to attend hearings without coming to court, saving time and money. Maassen also pointed to efforts in Bethel and Dillingham to move the jury selection process online in some cases to avoid costly and time-consuming travel for jurors.
Maassen said he also recently urged judges around the state to make more use of restorative justice programs.
“Restorative justice may include circle sentencing or another culturally-based practice that incorporates input not just from the victim, but from the community at large,” he said. “It may result in a recommendation to the judge as to what the sentence should be. It’s another way to help Alaskans see the court system as a part of the community, reflecting its values, and not apart from it.”
Maassen also highlighted some other recent changes, including one that simplifies tribes’ legally-mandated access to hearings for Native children in need of aid.
He said the court system was also working through its backlog of criminal cases by adjusting its calendars and limiting continuances. He did not provide specifics on the size of the backlog.
The chief justice also underlined some of the court system’s budget requests to the Legislature, including a fund that could be used to fight back against cyberattacks and upgrades to court facilities in Palmer.