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2/12/15 - Chief Justice Dana Fabe asks Legislators to spare the judiciary from budget cuts

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice asks Legislators to keep justice system whole

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe yesterday [Wednesday] gave her annual State of the Judiciary address to lawmakers. With legislators looking for ways to cut state spending, Fabe made the case for preserving the judicial branch’s budget.

“The court does not control the number or types of cases that come before us, or which charges will be brought or tried,” said Fabe. “But it is our responsibility to resolve all of them as promptly, thoroughly, and fairly as we can."

Fabe specifically addressed the importance of keeping a judicial presence in rural Alask,a and the value of letting litigants face trial in their home regions.

“This will likely be our greatest challenge: to resist the financial pressures to centralize our operations in the hub communities and insist that Alaskans come to those hubs for justice or do without," said Fabe.

She also said the court is reevaluating the way it approaches child custody cases to better accommodate litigants who represent themselves.

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Little Diomede in third week of isolation

By Matthew Smith, KNOM

The only aircraft flying to one of Alaska’s most remote communities has been down for maintenance for nearly three weeks—leaving residents of the Bering Strait community of Little Diomede with empty mailboxes, no medication deliveries, bare grocery store shelves, and no way on or off the island.

Andrea Okpealuk works at the Diomede school, and on Tuesday afternoon she was escorting children to lunch. The kids were eating alongside classmates, but also other members of the community, parents and aunties and grandfathers. That’s because no mail or cargo deliveries have come to Diomede since Jan. 22. That’s left store shelves empty, and with no checks coming in the mail, wallets are thin and essentials hard to come by.

“In our store, it’s pretty bare,” said Okpealuk. “We do have a bunch of food here at the school, which will last for a while.”

The Diomede school has opened its doors—serving nearly 300 lunches and dinners to Diomede residents since Saturday. But even with the school sharing its food, Okpealuk said, for mothers with young babies, no new stock on the shelves means there are few alternatives.

“In our home, I think the hardest part is having milk for the babies,” she added,. “It is hard when there’s no milk. When you’ve switched your baby to regular canned milk to whole milk, to nonfat milk, to two percent milk, and then to nonfat milk again, and then now to powdered milk, it upsets the baby’s stomach. A couple of us are going to that now.”

The needs go beyond the right food on the shelves.

Over the weekend an Army National Guard Blackhawk had to be dispatched to medevac a pregnant 18-year-old from Diomede to Nome’s Norton Sound Regional Hospital. While on the ground the Blackhawk crew and four medical providers were alerted to a two-month-old with an airway issue. The infant was medevaced to Nome as well.

Diomede’s remote location means there are few options when it comes to passenger and freight service to the island. Its unique geography—set along the shore of an island that’s basically a mountain jutting sharply from the Bering Sea—means there’s no runway, save for the occasional ice runway that can be carved into the sea ice.

That leaves just one company, Oregon-based aircraft operator Erickson Aviation, to provide helicopter flights—flights paid for with nearly $340-thousand dollar subsidy from the federal Department of Transportation and Bering Strait regional nonprofit Kawerak. The subsidy keeps the service running under the Essential Air Service program set up in 1978.

Erickson’s program director Chris Schuldt says the company only keeps a single helicopter—a twin-engine Bölkow BO-105—for service to Diomede. And that helicopter has been down in Anchorage for routine maintenance since that last flight to Diomede on January 22. Shudlt said Tuesday the craft should start flying again this week.

 “Well we’ve had some maintenance on the aircraft,” said Shudt, “but the goal is to return it to service in the next one to two days. Pending weather it’ll return to Nome and begin operations as soon as that’s complete, make sure our aircraft are in the top condition before we begin flying passenger[s] and cargo again.”

Erickson also contracts with the U.S. Postal Service for weekly mail service to Diomede. Kawerak says the contract requires Erickson to make a certain number of trips each year, but otherwise allows the company to set its own schedule when it comes to flights, as well as stoppages for weather and repairs.

This isn’t the first time Diomede has been without flights. Ice runways have been more and more unpredictable in recent years, and before the EAS flights started in 2012, there were two years with no winter runways and the only air travel was for mail—a time those who organized the EAS application refer to a crisis. And as recently as the summer, a delay in signing the EAS contracts left Diomede without air service for more than two weeks.

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