Senate wrestles with bill for faster court decisions

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

JUNEAU -- A state senator said Wednesday he is backing off a push to require Supreme Court justices to render decisions in a timely manner or face missing their pay checks.

State Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, said after a hearing he will revise Senate Bill 161 to make timely decisions by the court state policy, but not state law with penalties.

Donley continued to express concerns over the intent of the measure, originally introduced by the Judiciary Committee. Donley said one case before the Supreme Court is undecided after three years and others are pending after two years.

''That is not acceptable,'' Donley said. ''That's not a reasonable time frame.''

A law on the books since statehood already addresses timeliness of Superior Court and District Court decisions. Judges do not get their paychecks until they file affidavits stating that they have no pending opinion or decision that is older than six months.

SB 161, as considered Wednesday, would have made the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals -- courts with multiple judges -- subject to one-year time limits on decisions if judges wanted to collect their paychecks on time.

The bill also would require the state elections pamphlet to note how many times judges had missed checks when judges came up for review be voters.

''I believe that's important information that Alaska voters should know,'' Donley said.

Chris Christensen, Alaska Court System deputy administrative director, told committee members that the law tying checks to timely decisions is probably unconstitutional. Similar laws have been tossed out in three other states, he said, but has never been challenged here.

Judges are the only group of state employees who have to certify that they are not behind in their work, Christensen said. They follow the law, he said, out of respect for the legislative branch, which provides money and staff that is adequate for finishing work within the six-month time frame.

But passing the bill as written would almost certainly trigger a lawsuit and jeopardize the six-month deadline that judges mostly adhere to, Christensen said.

''The bill, quite frankly, scares me,'' he said.

The paycheck of a justice could be held up because a colleague was late in writing an opinion, Christensen said

''This is an issue of fundamental fairness,'' he said.

He said fewer than 5 percent of Supreme Court decisions do not meet the 12-month deadline. He noted that the Alaska Supreme Court cannot refuse to hear a case and renders twice as many decisions as supreme courts in Washington, Oregon and California.

Christensen said the court is making its own efforts to speed justice with the training of judges in case management techniques, mentor programs and internal guidelines for quicker decisions.

''We're optimistic that you'll see continue improvements,'' Christensen said.

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