The state of Alaska has 40 trial courts located in its major towns and cities. The state also hosts about 40 tribal courts with jurisdiction on autonomous Native American lands and Alaska offers therapeutic courts that address alcoholism, drug abuse and similar factors to divert nonviolent offenders from the criminal system. A separate Veteran's Court was established in 2004 to address criminal behavior stemming from military service.
District courts in Alaska have limited jurisdiction. Currently there are four districts with 23 judges serving them. The state's judicial districts are regional, including Southeast Alaska (First), Northern Alaska (Second), South Central Alaska (Third) and Interior and Southwest Alaska (Fourth). Below judges are magistrates who reduce the duties of judges by performing many of the same duties, including presiding over hearings on preliminary felony charges, making decisions in small claims cases under $10,000, issuing warrants and summonses, and solemnizing marriages, among other things.
District courts are where residents go to file probate claims when a loved one dies; when they are charged with misdemeanor offenses of state and local laws, when they seek an emergency decision on child custody, or when they file or respond to a small claims complaint under $10,000. It is also where residents may sue in civil cases for damages of $100,000 or less.
In fiscal year 2015, the state's district courts handled over 112,000 filings, split almost evenly between minor offenses and "'non-minor" offenses, according to the court system's annual report.
Superior courts hold trials for civil and criminal cases, hear appeals of criminal and civil rulings made in district courts in their jurisdiction; decide criminal cases involving juveniles, and hear divorce and child custody matters. Most of its cases originate in the state's largest city, Anchorage (over 10,000 filings in fiscal year 2015, for 47 percent of the court's total cases). In each of the past three fiscal years, Alaska state superior courts have received over 22,500 cases per year. In fiscal year 2015, felonies made up over 27 percent of the matters before the court, 25 percent of the court's work was probate matters, and 21 percent was domestic issues.
State courts of appeals are superior courts in which a panel of appointed judges may revisit criminal and civil decisions of lower courts to determine if the law was applied correctly in those cases. There are 42 superior court judges in Alaska's four districts. Alaska's appeals court gets about 250 requests for rehearings per session, the majority being requests for merit appeals, or rehearing of the facts of the case, and 25-30 are appeals of sentences handed down by lower courts. In recent years fewer of the merit appeals are disposed of by the end of the court session, resulting in a backlog of hundreds of filings (500 or more in each of the past three fiscal years).
The Court of Last Resort in Alaska is the State Supreme Court, which has final say in appeals on cases decided in state courts. The state Supreme Court also takes petitions from concerned parties in pending Superior Court cases, offers guidance to legislators on matters of Alaska law, oversees the state bar including attorney discipline. In fiscal year 2015 the court disposed of over 300 cases. It has begun its session in each of the last several years with more than 300 cases pending, then adds another 300 or so filings, mostly civil appeals, during the session.
After a Fairbanks man was convicted in 2011 of a felony drug possession charge, the state Appeals Court threw out the decision, saying the law it was based on was convoluted and confusing. Police had searched the man's car and found cocaine in the ashtray; while the defendant claimed it was an unreasonable search and seizure, the court said police were justified in searching the car due to probable cause but that the wording of the law forbids searching a "'closed container" unless it's "'immediately associated" with the suspect. The appeals court panel of judges decided to seek the state Supreme Court's clarification of the law, which might allow Alaska police to seek evidence in car consoles and gloveboxes without a warrant.