7 vie for judge seat in Kenai Superior Court

The Alaska Judicial Council has its work cut out in narrowing down the applicants for a judgeship in Kenai’s Superior Court.

Kenai Superior Court Judge Carl Bauman will not seek retention, which leaves his seat available along with three other Superior Court seats in Dillingham, Nome and Bethel, according to a release from the Alaska Judicial Council. Applications have been filed for the local position by seven attorneys, who will be interviewed by the council in Kenai this December, said Susanne DiPietro, executive director of the council. The council will narrow down applicants for the seat based on the interviews and will forward at least two names to Gov. Bill Walker, who will have 45 days from that point to make the final appointment, DiPietro said.

“It’s such a thorough process that it takes time,” DiPietro said.

Among the applicants for the local judgeship are Kenai Magistrate Judge Jennifer Wells, Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders and Assistant Attorney General Lance Joanis in Kenai. Joanis held the position of Kenai’s district attorney previously and was replaced by Leaders when he took his current job working on Child in Need of Aid cases. He has applied for a judge position in Dillingham and Palmer in addition to Kenai, he said.

Joanis began practicing in Bethel as an assistant district attorney. He worked briefly in Anchorage’s district attorney office before becoming Kenai’s district attorney, and finally making the move to the attorney general’s office in 2011.

“I think it’s the next step in service to the community,” Joanis said of the superior court position. “And it seems like an interesting line of work.”

Joanis applied in Dillingham and Palmer because they share characteristics with Bethel and Kenai, respectively, he said. With courts in Kenai, Homer and Seward, Joanis said the Kenai Peninsula is busy and diverse, and is a “great community.”

“It’s a great pool,” he said of the other applicants for Kenai’s open judicial seat.

Wells has served as a magistrate since 1994, in Anchorage and Tok as well as in Kenai. Her understanding of the court system and of the Kenai community make her a qualified choice, she said.

“I’ve been with the Kenai court since 2007,” Wells said, explaining that she also lived in Kenai in the early 1990s, when she practiced as a lawyer.

Wells had a family and domestic violence law focus while working in Anchorage, and though her jurisdiction has broadened since becoming a magistrate in Kenai, she said would like to be able to get involved in more cases where she can apply that experience.

“I’ve done so much work in family law and civil law that I would really like to expand on that,” she said.

Wells was also involved in the formation of the peninsula’s new joint therapeutic court between the Alaska Court System and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, having served on the task force that worked on making the court a reality. If Superior Court Judge Anna Moran were to step down from the therapeutic court, Wells could not replace her in her current position, she said.

Having gone through the necessary training with Moran, Wells said she’s excited about the possibility of serving on the therapeutic court, something she said she has been very committed to bringing to the community as an alternate way of helping people.

“I think that because I’ve been a magistrate since 1994, so 22 years, I think that I know the court system inside and out, and I’ve always taken leadership roles,” Wells said.

Also throwing their hats into the ring for Kenai’s open judgeship are Brooke Browning Alowa, an assistant public advocate in Palmer, Fairbanks Magistrate Judge Romano DiBenedetto, Bride Seifert, an administrative law judge in Juneau, and Joan Wilson, who is in private practice in Anchorage.

DiBenedetto, who also applied for the positions in Bethel and Nome, said he has not lived in Kenai but has heard nothing but good things about it and thinks it would fit his lifestyle well.

“The interest I had was really more for the job itself,” he said, explaining that the work of a magistrate is somewhat limited to the “surface level” of cases and that his goal has been to become a district or superior court judge.

Alowa has practiced law in Alaska for 14 years and has picked up a wide range of experience in that time, she said. She has applied for all four open judge seats, and has at some point lived in each community except for Dillingham.

Alowa lived in Kenai from 2002-2006 and said she has been looking for a way to come back to the area.

“I worked as a public defender,” she said. “It was a very busy time for work, and I love the Kenai Peninsula.”

Before taking her current position, Alowa said she also worked as a public defender in Kotzebue, in private practice in Nome, as a magistrate in Alaska’s second district and for a time ran the office of public advocacy in Bethel. Kenai kept Alowa busy while she was here with larger case loads than in some other areas, she said. She described it as a “good place to learn to be a lawyer.”

“The cases were interesting and the clients were good to work with,” she said.

Seifert, Wilson and Leaders could not be reached for comment by press time Wednesday.

DiPietro said comments on applicants can be sent via the Alaska Judicial Council’s website or in the mail. There will be a public hearing in Kenai this December where the public can address council members directly, either about the applicants themselves or about what kind of strengths they would like to have in a judge, she said.

People who know the applicants are encouraged to comment on aspects that will be assessed by the council, like character, integrity, diligence, legal ability, honesty and fairness, DiPietro said.

“Sometimes people come and tell the council about their community … sort of the local culture there,” she said.

The date of the December public hearing is yet to be set, DiPietro said.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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