Judicial selection and retention process on trial in Alaska

It’s a long road to the Alaska bench. To get there, and stay there, potential judges have to gain approval from Alaska’s Judicial Council.
It’s a long road to the Alaska bench. To get there, and stay there, potential judges have to gain approval from Alaska’s Judicial Council.
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 7:41 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Judges play a critical role in court procedures, similar to umpires in baseball. Both judges and umpires strive to possess similar traits — impartiality, competency, and a willingness to make tough calls in front of an audience.

In some states, judges run lively campaigns, hand out bumper stickers, and host rallies to win their seat. But not in Alaska.

Alaska has a seven-member Judicial Council that accepts applications whenever a vacancy for a judgeship appears. Each candidate undergoes an extensive review of their personal and professional job history to assess their aptitude for a position on the bench. After interviews with the candidate, public testimony, and a full analysis of them, the seven members of the council vote.

The council votes — with the Chief Justice abstaining unless there is a tie — and the most highly qualified candidates are forwarded to the governor. The governor makes the final appointment.

Outgoing Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court and chair of the Judicial Council Daniel Winfree says that piles of paper for one judge hopeful can be inches thick, and hundreds of pages long.

The council members don’t always agree, but Winfree thinks that’s a feature of the inclusive process.

“The beauty of it is, is that when you have six people all looking at the same thing, and you’re working collaboratively, you see an entire picture.”

But the council’s work isn’t finished. After a couple of years on the bench, they review judges again to assess if they ought to retain their judgeship. The council repeats much of the initial selection process to discern new information about how an individual is doing during the first few years on the job. The council then makes a public recommendation supporting either the release or retention of a particular judge. However, the public ultimately makes the final decision at the ballot box.

The Judicial Council is there every step of the way through a judge’s career.

“The council’s role is to look at everybody who’s up for retention, and do a very similar kind of investigation into how they’ve done over the last term, so that the council can make a recommendation to the voters whether to retain or non-retain this particular judge,” Winfree said.

Richard Payne is an attorney at Denali Law Group and said that over the course of his 25-year-long career practicing law in Alaska, he feels confident about the judicial selection process.

“Our system insulates judges, from pressures that are prevalent outside of the state,” Payne said. “They don’t have to worry about hanging signs. They don’t have to worry about playing to the majority. They can do what they think is right. And I think they do.”

Winfree agrees that Alaskans are lucky to have this process carved into the Constitution.

“There are Supreme Court judges in states — for example, Minnesota comes to my mind — where they have to raise $10 million to run to be a Supreme Court justice,” Winfree said.

He wants voters to think hard about where campaign money comes from.

“It’s hard for me to say that that doesn’t have an impact on their decision-making. I hope it doesn’t,” Winfree said.

Alaska’s system won’t change any time soon. The only chance to reform the Alaska Constitution was this year’s election, and Ballot Measure 1 failed to pass. The failure of Ballot Measure 1 is disappointing to some. A minority movement questions whether the process is as apolitical as it appears at a glance.

Former Fairbanks Senator John Coghill suggests there is more to the story.

“We have avoided the political noise because the election is now by appointment,” Coghill said. “But what that does is it takes it and puts it kind of behind a veil.”

Coghill eschews outright condemnation of the system’s integrity. But, the process noblesse aside, he says, “That doesn’t mean there’s not politics involved.”