Alaska Supreme Court Justice gives pointed speech at AFN over judicial independence, funding

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger speaks at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Fairbanks on Oct. 18, 2019.
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTUU) - Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court Joel Bolger gave a pointed speech at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention on funding for the criminal justice system and attacks against the independence of the courts.

"I agree with this convention that justice delayed is justice denied," said Bolger to hundreds of delegates at the Carlson Center Friday morning, citing a huge backload in felony cases in Anchorage and delays in trials across the state.

He said that attorneys are often not ready to bring their cases to trial and police agencies often don't readily develop or disclose investigations.
Both causes of delays "involve the application of adequate funding to bring these cases to trial," Bolger said. "I don't want to make an exaggeration, but I would say it's very serious at this point."

The comments from the Chief Justice come after the governor vetoed funding to the Alaska Court System due to rulings made by Alaska justices over state abortion funding. The veto sparked a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

"We are facing a great deal of political pressure," Bolger said before calling on AFN delegates to defend the impartiality and independence of the courts.

After his speech, Bolger would not get into specifics about what his comments were referring to and he would not make any specific references to the governor.

On Friday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy defended his decision to veto funding from the Alaska Court System over abortion funding decisions.

"Alaskans really don't want to support funding for abortions," he said. "What you don't hear much about the Legislature itself in the budget bill called for not using state money to fund abortions and so that was the reason for the veto."

"The courts put forth that abortions should be funded," Dunleavy said.

A second rationale for Bolger's comments could be delays the governor made appointing a Palmer Superior Court judge after a vacancy.

The governor again defended that decision, saying he wanted to learn about the process the Alaska Judicial Council uses to recommend judges and why the council couldn't nominate more than two judges.

The governor says he had a "great conversation" with Bolger himself "and I gained a better understanding of how the process works." He said the delay, beyond the time period set out in the Alaska Constitution, was "not an attempt to politicize (the courts)."

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