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About the Alaska Court System

The Alaska Supreme Court

The Alaska Supreme Court is the highest level of state court in Alaska. It hears appeals from lower state courts and also administers the state’s judicial system.

The Supreme Court includes the chief justice and four associate justices. The five justices, by majority vote, select one of their members to be the chief justice. The chief justice holds that office for three years and may not serve consecutive terms.

The Supreme Court hears oral argument in cases on a monthly basis in Anchorage, approximately each quarter in Fairbanks and Juneau, and on occasion in other Alaskan communities. The court prefers to hear oral argument in the judicial district where the case was originally heard by the trial court.

The court meets bi-weekly to confer on cases argued orally and cases submitted on the briefs – that is, without oral argument. The court decides the cases and publishes its decisions in one of three ways – as an Opinion, a Memorandum Opinion, and Judgment (MO&J), or an Order.

  1. Opinions explain in detail the legal reasoning supporting the decision and are published in the official Pacific Reporter and Alaska Reporter.
  2. Memorandum Opinions and Judgments (MO&Js) also explain the legal reasoning but are not published in the official reporters.
  3. Orders rule summarily on the merits of cases or dismiss them, include little or no legal reasoning, and are not published in the official reporters.

Although MO&Js and most Orders are not published, they are available for public inspection at the office of the clerk of the appellate courts. Current MO&Js are also available on the Alaska Court System website and through some subscription legal research services.

Under the state constitution, the Supreme Court establishes rules for the administration of all courts in the state, and for practice and procedure in civil and criminal cases. The Supreme Court also adopts rules for the practice of law in Alaska. The legislature may change the court’s procedural rules by passing an act expressing its intent to do so by a two-thirds majority of both houses.

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Supreme Court Jurisdiction

The term "jurisdiction" means a court’s legal power and authority to hear particular types of cases. The Supreme Court has final state appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters as follows:

  • Appeals. The Supreme Court must accept appeals from final decisions by the Superior Court in civil cases (including cases which originated in administrative agencies).
  • Discretionary Matters. The Supreme Court may exercise its discretion to accept:
    • Petitions for Hearing of final appellate decisions of the Court of Appeals (criminal) or Superior Court (civil);
    • Petitions for Review of non-final orders by the Court of Appeals in criminal cases and the Superior Court in civil cases; and
    • Original Applications in matters for which relief is not otherwise available, including bar admission and attorney discipline matters and questions of state law certified from the federal courts.

Alaska Court System Structure and Flow of Civil and Criminal Appeals


Justices of the Alaska Supreme Court
Justice
Term
Buell Nesbett August 1959 - March 1970
John H. Dimond August 1959 - December 1971
Walter H. Hodge August 1959 - February 1960
Harry O. Arend May 1960 - January 1965
Jay A. Rabinowitz February 1965 - February 1997
Roger G. Connor December 1968 - May 1983
George F. Boney December 1968 - August 1972
Robert C. Erwin August 1970 - April 1977
Robert Boochever March 1972 - October 1980
James M. Fitzgerald December 1972 - March 1975
Edmond W. Burke March 1975 - December 1993
Warren W. Matthews May 1977 - April 2009
Allen T. Compton December 1980 - November 1998
Daniel A. Moore, Jr. July 1983 - December 1995
Robert L. Eastaugh April 1994 - November 2009
Dana Fabe January 1996 -
Alexander O. Bryner February 1997 - October 2007
Walter L. Carpeneti November 1998 - January 2013
Daniel E. Winfree January 2008 -
Morgan Christen April 2009 - January 2012
Craig Stowers December 2009 -
Peter J. Maassen August 2012 -
Joel H. Bolger January 2013 -

Meet Alaska's Judges

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The Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals is a three-judge court consisting of a chief judge and two associate judges. The Court of Appeals was created in 1980 by the Alaska Legislature. The chief judge of the Court of Appeals is appointed by the chief justice to serve a two-year term.

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Court of Appeals Jurisdiction

The Court of Appeals has jurisdiction to hear appeals in cases involving criminal prosecutions, post-conviction relief, juvenile delinquency, extradition, habeas corpus, probation and parole, bail, and the excessiveness or leniency of a sentence, as follows:

  • Appeals. The Court of Appeals must accept appeals from final decisions by the Superior Court or the District Court in criminal cases. These include merit appeals (issues concerning the merits of a conviction) and sentence appeals (issues concerning the excessiveness or leniency of a sentence).
  • Discretionary Matters. The Court of Appeals may exercise its discretion to accept:
    • Petitions for Review of non-final orders from the Superior Court or the District Court;
    • Petitions for Hearing of final appellate decisions of the Superior Court on review of the District Court’s decisions; and
    • Original Applications in matters for which relief cannot be obtained from the court through one of the above procedures.

Alaska Court System Structure and Flow of Civil and Criminal Appeals

Meet Alaska's Judges

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The Clerk of the Appellate Courts

The clerk of the appellate courts supports the work of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The clerk is required to be an attorney. The clerk’s responsibilities include monitoring the caseflow through the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals and making recommendations for improvements in appellate procedure. The clerk is also responsible for all case filing and calendaring, publishing opinions and related tasks. The clerk’s office is located in Anchorage.

Marilyn May was appointed Clerk of the Appellate Courts in October 1998.

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Trial Courts

Trial courts hear court cases when they are first initiated, and render decisions on the law and facts of cases that fall within their jurisdiction. The two levels of trial court in the Alaska Court System are the Superior Court and the District Court.

The trial courts in Alaska are divided into four judicial districts, whose boundaries are defined by statute. In January of each year, the chief justice of the Supreme Court designates a Superior Court judge from each of Alaska’s four judicial districts to serve as presiding judge for a term of one calendar year. The presiding judge, in addition to regular judicial duties, is responsible for the administration of the trial courts within the district, including assignment of cases, supervision of court personnel, efficient handling of court business and appointment of magistrate judges. Assisting the presiding judge with administrative responsibilities for each judicial district are the area court administrators.

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The Superior Court

The Superior Court is the trial court of general jurisdiction. There are 42 Superior Court judges located throughout the state. The Superior Court has the authority to hear all cases, both civil and criminal, properly brought before the state courts, with the very limited exception of matters taken directly to the Supreme Court. However, the Superior Court does not routinely hear cases that may be brought in the District Court, a court of limited jurisdiction.

Superior Court Jurisdiction

The Superior Court:

  • is a trial court for both criminal and civil cases;
  • serves as an appellate court for appeals from civil and criminal cases which have been tried in the District Court;
  • hears cases involving children who have committed crimes (juvenile delinquency) or who are abused or neglected (child in need of aid);
  • hears cases involving the property of deceased or incompetent persons;
  • hears cases involving involuntary commitment of persons to institutions for the mentally ill;
  • handles domestic relations matters; and
  • handles guardianships and conservatorships.

Alaska Court System Structure and Flow of Civil and Criminal Appeals

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The District Court

The District Court is a trial court of limited jurisdiction. Its powers are narrower than those of the Superior Court. At the time of Statehood in 1959, the Alaska legislature created a District Court for each judicial district and granted the Supreme Court the authority to increase or decrease the number of District Court judges within each judicial district. There are currently 23 District Court judges serving in three of the four judicial districts.

Magistrate judges are judicial officers of the District Court whose authority is more limited than the authority of a District Court judge. They preside over certain types of cases in areas of the state where services of a full-time District Court judge are not required. Some magistrate judges serve more than one court location. Magistrate judges also serve in metropolitan areas to handle routine matters and ease the workload of the District Court judges.   A magistrate judge is not required to be a lawyer.

District Court Judge Jurisdiction

A District Court judge may:

  • hear state misdemeanors and minor offenses and violations of city and borough ordinances;
  • issue summonses, arrest warrants and search warrants;
  • hear first appearances and preliminary hearings in felony cases;
  • hear civil cases involving claims not to exceed a value of $100,000 per defendant;
  • hear small claims cases ($10,000 maximum for most cases; $20,000 for wage claims brought by the Department of Labor);
  • handle cases involving children on an emergency basis;
  • hear domestic violence cases; and
  • hear inquests and presumptive death hearings.

Magistrate Judge Jurisdiction

A magistrate judge may:

  • hear trials of municipal ordinance violations, state traffic infractions and other minor offenses;
  • hold trials and enter judgments in state misdemeanors if a defendant agrees in writing to be tried by a magistrate judge;
  • issue summonses, arrest warrants and search warrants;
  • preside over preliminary hearings in felony cases;
  • hear formal civil cases ($10,000 maximum);
  • hear small claims cases ($10,000 maximum for most cases; $20,000 for wage claims brought by the Department of Labor);
  • handle cases involving children on an emergency basis;
  • hear domestic violence cases;
  • hear inquest and presumptive death hearings;
  • issue writs of habeas corpus (challenges to the legality of a person’s confinement);
  • solemnize marriages and perform notary public duties;
  • act as a hearing officer to review an administrative revocation of a driver’s license;
  • enter a judgment of conviction if a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to any state misdemeanor; and
  • conduct extradition (fugitive from justice) proceedings.

Alaska Court System Structure and Flow of Civil and Criminal Appeals

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Statewide Court Administration

As provided by Article IV, section 16 of the Constitution of Alaska, the Alaska Supreme Court appoints an administrative director to supervise the administrative operations of the judicial system. Christine Johnson has been the administrative director since 2009. Ms. Johnson is assisted by deputy director Doug Wooliver and 84 employees in the administrative office of the court.

The specific responsibilities of the administrative director and the administrative office are outlined in Rule 1 of the Alaska Court System Rules of Administration. These include supervising the administrative operations of the court and advising the chief justice and the Supreme Court in all matters not adjudicatory in nature. Sections within the administrative office include: Facilities, Fiscal Operations (including Accounting, Supply, Print Shop, Micrographics and Procurement), Legal and Legislative Liaison services, Mediation Projects Coordination, Judicial Education, Human Resources, Court Rules, Law Libraries and Information Systems (Technology).

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Other Justice System Participants

This introductory profile discusses the roles of justices, judges and magistrate judges in the court system. However, many persons who are not part of the court system are involved with the larger justice system. For example:

  • A plaintiff is the person (or group, or corporation, etc.) who first brings a case to court and starts the court action.
  • A defendant is the person (or group, or corporation, etc.) who is on the other side of the dispute that the plaintiff has brought to court.
  • A peace officer or law enforcement officer (for example, a policeman or state trooper) is a person who is responsible for maintaining order, enforcing the law, and preventing and detecting crime. A peace officer is not part of the judicial system, but instead works in the executive branch of government in the Department of Public Safety or for a city government.
  • A lawyer (also called an attorney, counsel, or counselor) is a person who is trained in legal matters and licensed to practice law. A lawyer acts on behalf of other people in legal matters, who are referred to as clients. A lawyer’s main duty is to his or her client, although the lawyer must also meet other obligations. (For example, a lawyer cannot knowingly make a false statement in court, even at a client’s request.) 

Some lawyers have special titles. In general, a lawyer who represents the State of Alaska in a criminal case is an assistant district attorney, and a lawyer who represents the state in a civil case is an assistant attorney general. Any lawyer who represents state or local government in a criminal case may be called the prosecutor or the prosecuting attorney. A lawyer appointed by the court to represent a defendant in a criminal case because the defendant cannot afford to hire his or her own lawyer is usually employed by the Public Defender Agency and is referred to as an assistant public defender.

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