Kenai courts busier than ever

Posted: Friday, April 01, 2005

Many people hope they never have to go to the Kenai Courthouse, but those who do go often find themselves waiting in line to see a court clerk.

A recently published report on the Alaska Court System sheds light on the reason why.

The 2004 Annual Report shows the number of cases filed in the Kenai courts increased by 9 percent last year.

Referred to as trial court filings, the number of cases filed in Kenai Superior Court in 2004 was 1,257, and the number filed in Kenai District Court was 10,923, of which 7,525 were traffic filings.

Of those totals, 51 cases became jury trials in 2004 — 26 in district court and 25 in superior court, according to Kenai Court Clerk Deirdre Cheek.

When compared to the 2004 numbers for Anchorage Superior and District courts, the number of cases in Kenai amounts to a large workload, especially considering Kenai last year had two superior court judges and no district court judge, only two magistrates.

In Anchorage, where 13 superior court judges and nine district court judges preside, 123 cases went to jury trial — slightly more than double the amount in Kenai.

When viewed from the court clerk perspective, the Kenai office handles the load with 20 employees, while Anchorage has 106.

The criminal department alone in Anchorage has 21 employees.

"The staffing formula is based on the number of nontraffic, civil and criminal filings," Cheek said.

Cheek, who began working in the clerk's office as a civil clerk in 1986 and worked her way up to the top post she was appointed to last year, said the Third Judicial District, which encompasses the Kenai Court, also includes the state's other two largest courts, Anchorage and Palmer.

In addition to staffing the front customer counter in the courthouse and serving as in-court clerks during trials, clerks under Cheek's supervision keep track of all the jurors summoned to jury duty in Kenai, making sure each juror gets paid for serving and gets paid the correct amount.

The clerks also accept every piece of paperwork that goes into a case file, whether it be legal motions filed by a plaintiff or responses to the motions filed by the defendant, notes taken by the in-court clerk and orders of sentencing prepared by the judge.

Additionally, the clerks keep track of all monies received by the courts from filing fees, bail amounts and fines.

Clerks also issue marriage licenses and help people set up weddings conducted in the courthouse.

In-court clerks record court proceedings, arrange for the transportation of in-custody defendants to and from the corrections facility, prepare documents for the judge's signature and maintain log notes on each case.

It also is the responsibility of court clerks to answer all phone calls that come into the courthouse — no small task, according to Cheek.

The Alaska Court System administrator is aware of the staffing needs of the Kenai Court, Cheek said, and "they're working on getting better technology for us to better provide services to the public."

When asked what additions she would like to see in Kenai, Cheek said first on her list would be one additional courtroom.

Currently Kenai has two courtrooms for hearing superior court cases and two for district court matters. Another district court, with a district court judge, is in Homer, and an unstaffed district court is in Seward. Kenai judges travel to the two seaside communities once a month to conduct trials.

A fifth courtroom was created in Kenai out of a former juror's room around the first of the year, but it is too small to accommodate a jury trial.

"One more clerk in criminal would be nice," Cheek said, adding she would like to have one clerk she could use as a floater — a person who could go where needed if someone called in sick or was on vacation, or if one area was overburdened with work.

"Admin is aware of our needs. They just have a budget (to work within)," she said.



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