22 judges are up for retention statewide: Here’s how you can learn about them

(Source: Gray News)
Published: Oct. 9, 2020 at 6:01 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With 25 days till the November 2020 election, much of the focus is on who will lead the country for the next four years from the executive branch, as well as the candidates hoping to represent Alaskans in congress and the legislature. But an often overlooked group of people who wield great power are on the ballot too — 22 judges are up for retention statewide.

Judges do not make the laws, but they are responsible for interpreting and upholding them.

While Alaskans play an important role in deciding whether judges should stay on the job, Susanne DiPietro, Executive Director of the Alaska Judicial Council, said there is not a high level of awareness among voters of how the state’s judicial selection and retention process works.

It’s not uncommon for Alaskans to vote either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for the retention of every judge on the ballot without knowledge of who they are or how they’ve performed on the bench — despite the efforts of the Alaska Judicial Council.

The Alaska Judicial Council

The Judicial Council is a non-partisan citizens commission created by the Alaska Constitution that screens and nominates people to fill judicial vacancies.

In 1976, the Legislature directed the council to evaluate the performance of judges who are standing for retention.

Since then, the council has recommended all but a handful of judges for retention, but the recommendation is far from a rubber stamp. It’s actually considered the “gold standard,” according to DiPietro, who says the council’s evaluation procedures were some of the first in the country and are still regarded as the most thorough in the nation.

“In the Alaska Constitution, we have a merit selection system,” DiPietro explained, “and the founders, and then the delegates, were very clear that they wanted this to be a nonpartisan, a-political process.”

The council is made up of the following:

  • Three members, who are not attorneys, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by a majority of each house of the Alaska Legislature.
  • Three attorney members are elected by their peers in an advisory ballot and are appointed by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association, an entity created and authorized by the Alaska Legislature.
  • The Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court serves as chair. (The Chief Justice does not vote unless his or her vote can affect an outcome.)

The members serve staggered terms on a volunteer basis, receiving no financial benefits outside of reimbursements for travel expenses, however, the council’s work has recently been conducted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judicial selection

In order to fully understand why most judges receive high marks on their retention evaluations, DiPietro says it’s important to understand the extremely selective vetting process each judge underwent before being appointed to the bench.

Applicants undergo a thorough investigation, an interview process and a public hearing.

“[Council members] do a very detailed investigation of their legal ability, their impartiality, their integrity,” DiPietro said.

After the review process, the council must submit at least two names to the governor, who then must appoint someone from the council’s list to fill the judicial vacancy.

Just because an applicant is qualified doesn’t mean they will be nominated, according to DiPietro, as the council only selects the most qualified applicants, based on merit, to forward to the governor’s office for selection.

Judicial retention

Once a judge is on the bench, Alaska’s process requires they periodically go before voters for retention and the law allows the council to make a recommendation to Alaskans on whether a judge should be retained.

The council’s work evaluating a judge for retention is a process that starts a year in advance of the election in which their name will appear on the ballot. The evaluation involves an analysis of decisions made over their most recent period on the bench and surveys completed by Alaskans.

According to its website, the council is looking at the following performance standards:

  • Legal Ability. The judge demonstrates knowledge of substantive law, evidence, and procedure, and clarity and precision in their work.
  • Impartiality/Fairness. The judge demonstrates a sense of fairness and justice and treats all parties equally.
  • Integrity. The judge’s conduct is free from impropriety or the appearance of impropriety, and the judge makes decisions without regard to possible public criticism.
  • Judicial Temperament. The judge is courteous and free from arrogance, and the judge manifests human understanding and compassion.
  • Diligence and Administrative Skills. The judge is prepared for court proceedings, works diligently, and is reasonably prompt in making decisions.

The council surveys attorneys, court staff, social services professionals, law enforcement officers and jurors. It also reviews peremptory challenge rates — how often a party chooses to request a different judge — as well as recusal rates and notes how often trial judges are reversed on appeal, including appellate affirmance rates in their public evaluation report.

The council also reviews other records including financial disclosures and conflict of interest forms.

Lastly, the council considers any instances in which a judge’s salary was withheld due to unfinished work.

A summary of the council’s findings is provided to voters through the state’s election pamphlet, but dozens of pages of information are available for each judge on the Judicial Council’s website.

Recommended for retention

This year, DiPietro said all 22 judges that will appear on the ballot are recommended for retention by the council.

“This is an extremely important part of our democracy, to look at the performance of judges and to vote yes when they do a good job, to retain them in office,” she said.

DiPietro said the council’s evaluation process is not based on whether a party agreed with a decision the judge made, but rather, whether the judge follows the law and conducts themselves honorably.

“What’s interesting to think is some of those people lose their cases and some of those people win their cases, but we’re asking everyone, the ones who lost and the ones who won, to evaluate the judges,” she said. “And if you go to the Judicial Council’s website and look at the performance metrics given by the people we surveyed, you’ll see the judges did very well. And remember, those are people who lost their cases who are still giving pretty high ratings to all of the judges.”

Alaskans have only chosen once to unseat a judge who was recommended by the council for retention.

Campaigns spar over Alaska Supreme Court seat

Due to the apolitical nature of Alaska’s judicial selection and retention system, judges cannot campaign unless there is an organized effort to oust them.

Monday, a group of conservative political leaders and abortion opponents launched a campaign against state Supreme Court Justice Susan Carney.

The group, Alaskans for Judicial Reform, disagrees with Justice Susan Carney’s interpretation of the law on abortion, the state’s sex offender registry and the Permanent Fund Dividend and says that she overstepped the judiciary’s role in decisions she made on those issues.

Since the announcement, a group has begun advocating for Carney to retain her seat, noting her high rating from the nonpartisan Judicial Council and declaring that Carney’s judgment on laws enacted by the legislature is “precisely the role of our judicial branch of government.”

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