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Anchorage students watch as Alaska stage becomes courtroom

Mar 15, 2019

The Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments in February 2019 in regards to which state agency should pay the cost for juvenile defendants whose parents can’t afford the airfare to regional hubs for court. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse)

Everyone knows that traveling from villages to go to court in regional hubs is expensive. The question before the Alaska Supreme Court: which state agency should pay the cost for juvenile defendants whose parents can’t afford the airfare.

The stage at Anchorage's West High became a courtroom Feb. 27. Hundreds of high school students -- who had been studying the issue before they arrived -- watched two lawyers argue the issue of travel costs for juveniles before the state’s highest court.

They watched and listened, and after the oral arguments were done and the Supreme Court Justices had left the stage, they lined up to query the lawyers representing the state Division of Juvenile Justice and state Public Defender Agency.

One of the first questions asked was why the two agencies involved in juvenile justice were in court resolving something they might have worked out between themselves.

“Is there any possibility that they both split the cost?”

“Parties do work things out,” said Assistant Attorney General David Wilkinson.

Wilkinson represents the Division of Juvenile Justice and was defending the decision of the Bethel trial judge -- and later the Court of Appeals -- to require the state public defenders to pay for flying a defendant and an adult from Marshall to Bethel for a delinquency hearing.

“There are situations where state agencies can come up with interagency agreements to resolve issues," he said. "That’s just not the posture of this case.”

Assistant Public Defender Kelly Taylor fights to reverse that decision. She raised the idea that state lawmakers could play a role.

“I guess that’s something the state legislature could also do. They could decide that they wanted it (the travel costs) to be divided,” she said.

Supreme Court Justice Craig Stowers noted that “what we have here is a squabble between two different agencies of the state on who’s going to pay."

He also wanted to know why they were in court.

“If you’ve got two agencies that just want an answer, why don’t the agencies go to the Legislature and ask the Legislature to clarify what the Legislature intends. Why is this a court case? Why don’t you folks go and solve the problem, if you can?”

At the heart of the case is the lack of clear legal language. Judges had lots of questions for both attorneys. 

Chief Justice Joel Bolger asked Taylor what would happen if the Alaska Supreme Court decides that the law doesn’t clearly require either agency to pay the bill.

“What do we do then?”

“I think this court will have to decide which government entity is the appropriate entity to pay the costs,” Taylor said.

“Why is that our choice and not the Legislature’s choice," Bolger said. "Can’t we just wash our hands of it and say there’s no statute that says?”

“There’s a constitutional right to appear at trial," Taylor said. "The most important thing is that those funds are available for that child who is exercising that right, and there will be policy ramifications of whatever decisions this court makes. But I think that because of the importance of the right, this court will have to make a decision.”

One of the students watching the oral arguments suggested another option: the internet.

“Hello. My name is Caidin. So especially in our world of technology and video communication, why can’t we just Facetime a court case?”

“Well I think it feels different,” said Assistant Public Defender Taylor. “Don’t you think it would feel different to confront somebody in person versus over FaceTime?”

“Yeah, I guess it would feel a little different. Yeah, if there are hundreds of thousands of dollars to be dealt with and…”

“The only thing I would add, is Alaska’s Supreme Court, in writing the court rules, has actually talked about video conference participation by juveniles," Wilkinson joined in. "It doesn’t allow it when we’re at this trial, probably for the same reasons that Kelly was explaining. When you have a hearing where testimony is being taken that can be used against the juvenile, then that’s where the right is really heightened to be there.”

The Alaska Supreme Court justices will take some time to make the ruling, though Justice David Winfree said that doesn’t mean the court is divided on this or any other issue.

“You might be surprised to know that almost all, probably 90 to 95 percent of our cases, are unanimous," he said. "We are all in agreement most of the time.”

“I don’t agree with that,” interjected a couple of his colleagues on the Supreme Court, amid laughter.

The program that brings Supreme Court oral arguments in actual cases to Alaska high schools students began in 2010. It’s designed to help students understand the court system. The judges also hope that it encourages young people to become Alaska lawyers.