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Facing political pressure, Alaska’s chief justice says state courts will remain unbiased

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 12
  • Published February 12

Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger receives applause from the Alaska Legislature following the annual State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday in the state Capitol. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — In his annual address to the Alaska Legislature, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court declined to directly confront the political controversies confronting Alaska’s court system, instead delivering a speech devoted to the court’s work and a request for additional funding.

While the state’s high court will soon address the legality of the recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and may consider a case that deals with the legality of a veto affecting the courts’ own budget, Chief Justice Joel Bolger refrained from speaking on either matter.

He offered only one defensive note in his 30-minute speech, then took questions from reporters afterward.

“The court system will continue to do our work independently of any outside political interests or financial influences so that the public can continue to be certain that each court decision is fair and impartial,” Bolger said in his address.

“I can also assure you that the court system maintains an unbreakable commitment to continue to deliver equal justice for all, no matter the obstacles we face,” he said.

Last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $334,700 from the court system’s budget. At the time, the administration justified the veto by saying it was equivalent to the cost of abortion services required by Supreme Court rulings.

The administration repeated that veto when lawmakers passed legislation reversing it, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sued, alleging that the veto was unconstitutional retaliation.

Arguments over the matter have been scheduled for April 15 in lower court, but the dispute has continued into this year. The administration sought to preemptively cut the court system’s budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, then backed off that idea.

Bolger did not mention the preemptive cut but thanked the Legislature for its “consistent support for the judiciary."

“You funded us at the reduced levels we proposed and did not cut further,” he told legislators.

In the coming months, the court is expected to determine the legality of the campaign to remove Dunleavy from office, and the legality of a ballot measure seeking to install ranked-choice voting.

Bolger declined to say when the court might consider the recall issue. The timing of court hearings has become a political issue.

Additionally, Justice Craig Stowers has announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, and Friday is the deadline for attorneys to apply for the vacancy.

Four of the five members of the Alaska Supreme Court are seen before the start of the annual State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. From left to right are Craig Stowers, Susan Carney, Peter Maasen and Daniel Winfree. Not pictured is Chief Justice Joel Bolger, who presented the annual address. (James Brooks / ADN)

In response to a follow-up question, Bolger said Alaska’s courts address conflict-of-interest and personal-interest issues on a regular basis, and they will continue to do so.

Alaska’s constitution calls for a nonpartisan court system where judges are selected on merit. In the wake of several Supreme Court decisions favoring abortion rights, anti-abortion legislators have suggested that the courts do not represent the views of Alaskans and have proposed a politicized judicial selection process.

Bolger said he has talked to judges from states where judges are on the ballot and must seek campaign contributions to join the bench. He said he opposes a change.

“I believe that the founders of the Alaska Constitution have chosen the very best method for the selection and retention of good candidates for our judicial branch. I think that our system is better than any of the other systems in the country,” he said.

When asked whether the courts are in unprecedented territory because of the sheer number of issues facing the state’s judiciary, Bolger said no.

“There have always been tensions between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. And we’ve always resolved those tensions. So I do not approach this time that we’re in right now with any type of trepidation," he said. “I have faith in our system.”