Alaska's chief justice calls for solution to 'existential financial challenges'

JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court's chief justice came calling at the Capitol on Wednesday, asking lawmakers to solve what he called the state's "existential financial challenges."

In the annual State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature, Justice Craig Stowers described how court system employees have already made sacrifices to reduce state spending. The state has saved $2 million from Friday afternoon closures of the court system, and salaries have been cut by 4 percent — except for judges because, Stowers said, the Constitution bars their pay from being reduced.

Nonetheless, Stowers and some other judges have voluntarily given up 4 percent of their salaries, or are taking unpaid leave. The court system has also introduced a retirement incentive program for higher-paid, senior employees eligible for retirement, which Stowers said has saved $700,000.

And the judiciary has left judicial vacancies in a few rural courts, using visiting judges instead or asking parties to appear at another courtroom in person or by phone or video.

"We have taken our responsibility to be good stewards of the public's money very seriously," Stowers said. "But please understand that there is a limit on how much can be cut without doing irrevocable damage to the courts' ability to perform its constitutional duties."

[Read Craig Stowers' State of the Judiciary speech | Watch the speech]

With Stowers were the four other members of the Alaska Supreme Court, who were in Juneau to hear four cases Thursday at the Dimond Courthouse.


Other chief justices have used their annual speeches to the Legislature to tout new court system initiatives or reform proposals, Stowers said in an interview later Wednesday. But, he added, "I think it would be State of the Judiciary malpractice to not talk about the budget."

"It's the thing on everybody's mind," he said.

The court system has led efforts by state agencies to reduce the costs of salaries. Some state workers are taking two furlough days this year, but such concessions must be negotiated with unions by Gov. Bill Walker's administration.

The Legislature, meanwhile, imposed five-day furloughs on its employees.

Stowers told lawmakers that the court system is planning another 3.5 percent cut in its budget next year. But slicing deeper than that, he warned, "will require draconian reductions that will harm the broad cross-section of Alaskans and businesses and government entities that daily demand our services." And he reminded lawmakers that budget cuts alone will not be enough to solve the state's budget crisis.

Stowers noted that he came to lawmakers last year with a similar request.

"As I said here last year, now, more than at any time in Alaska's history, we Alaskans need smart, wise, effective leadership," he said Wednesday. "May Alaska's history testify one day that the 30th Legislature used its time wisely and with great success."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com