Two groups make their case to serve as court observers

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

Normally, court battles are waged between the plaintiff and the defendant, toward the front of the courtroom in the area of the witness stand and the judge's bench, but a court battle of sorts is currently brewing in the public gallery section.

In Kenai District Court as well as courtrooms in Palmer and Anchorage, two groups of volunteer court observers are busily gathering information on courtroom behavior while their organizers are vying for financial grants, the very lifeblood of the organizations.

CourtWatch was implemented by Victims for Justice in 1988 and has provided evaluations of the Alaska courts since then, but its director, Kathleen Rice, was terminated from employment this year and has since formed a new organization, Judicial Watch.

Victims for Justice Director Donna Garner said the termination involved confidential personnel matters.

Most of the trained CourtWatch volunteers, including three assigned to the Kenai courthouse, followed Rice. So did a $30,000 Alaska Judicial Council grant put up for bid this year.

Undaunted, CourtWatch, now under the direction of Kim Carnot, came to Kenai during the week of Oct. 21 and trained eight new volunteer observers.

"Three were from Soldotna, four from Kenai and one from Nikiski," Carnot said.

"I think we have a good program and I can't say enough about the volunteers in Kenai," she said.

"We've been here for 15 years and we're not going to just go away," said Garner.

She also said Victims for Justice appealed the Alaska Judicial Council grant award decision, but the appeal was turned down in a letter received Monday.

Garner said Victims for Justice is operating CourtWatch on reserve funds and is looking for additional sources of operating revenue. One additional unrestricted grant, in the amount of $23,500, was received Monday.

Larry Cohn, executive director of Alaska Judicial Council, said the council's grant was awarded to Judicial Watch this fiscal year because, "although Judicial Watch is new, it has the more qualified, experienced people."

Cohn said Rice had been the director of CourtWatch for three years, and Carnot was hired this summer.

"We evaluated the proposals under several criteria and determined that Judicial Watch had more experience and more experienced volunteers," he said.

The volunteer court observers evaluate Alaska's judicial system from a lay person's perspective to ensure that all participants -- victims, defendants and witnesses -- in court proceedings are treated fairly.

Once trained, the observers report to assigned courtrooms and simply observe. Using pre-printed forms, they record specifics about a case, list names of the judge, defendant, victim, defense attorney and prosecutor and describe the type of case they are watching.

Evaluations are then compiled into a report, which is used by the Alaska Judicial Council to help evaluate judicial performance regarding judges up for retention.

Information from the report is also used in voter election pamphlets when voters are asked whether to retain Alaska's district and superior court judges.

Alaska Judicial Watch was in Kenai on Monday and Tuesday recruiting additional volunteer observers, but Rice said that when she was terminated from CourtWatch earlier this year, "I got 18 resignation letters (from CourtWatch observers) in three days.

"When the Judicial Council called and said they were thinking about putting the $30,000 grant up for bid, I thought a lot about forming a nonprofit corporation.

"Bill (Carey), my husband, volunteered to put together the papers of incorporation."

Carey, an Anchorage personal-injury and criminal defense attorney, is now president of the Alaska Judicial Watch board of directors.

"I now have 24 volunteers in Anchorage, Kenai and Palmer ... all former CourtWatch volunteers," said Rice. "Three are Kenai volunteers, and I have three new Kenai volunteers coming."

In addition to the state-funded Alaska Judicial Council $30,000 grant, in the past, CourtWatch has received a $10,000 grant from the Alaska Bar Association Foundation.

"I built CourtWatch from three people with $10,000 to a $40,000 program with 28 active volunteers," said Rice.

She predicted that the newly created Judicial Watch would again receive the Judicial Council grant in 2003 and said, "The only way the Judicial Council wouldn't give Judicial Watch the grant next year is if they didn't have funds to give."

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