Alaskans tendency is to vote no to judge retention

Alaskans may pass a negative judgement on their judges too easily, despite Alaska’s merit-based process for selecting and retaining judges, according to retired Alaska Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews.

Andrews and Don McClintock, an attorney with Ashburn &Mason and a board member of Justice Not Politics Alaska, presented on Alaska’s judicial selection process and the public’s involvement at last Thursday’s Soldotna Rotary Club meeting at Mykel’s in Soldotna.

Andrews detailed the public process for installing judges, which starts out in the hands of a council and the governor who decide who should fill a vacant seat. After that, every four to 10 years voters decide whether judges should be retained in office and, according to Andrews, the tendency of Alaskan voters is to say “no.”

“I think there is a general sense that people say ‘a pox on all your houses,’ or alternatively, you get to the end of the ballot and think ‘I don’t know anything about these people,’ and you just vote ‘no,’” Andrews said.

In 2016, District 30, which includes Kenai and Soldotna, voted no on two supreme court justices and five superior court judges.

“If you automatically vote ‘no’ it is your prerogative as a voter to do so, but it takes at least two to three years to really train a judge to be good,” McClintock said. “If you start voting them out and cycling through, you lose the ability to have people with great tenure.”

In Alaska, judges are selected from a pool of candidates on a merit-based system. To apply, candidates must submit an application, which opens the candidate up to what Andrews referred to as a “public report card system.”

“That means when there is a judicial vacancy, if you want to be a judge you have to apply. It’s a job application just like any other, except it’s about 30 to 40 pages long,” Andrews said. “Your name goes out to every lawyer in the state and you’re going to get rated by your peers, and it’s a public rating.”

Then a candidate goes before a judicial council, which is made up of three attorney members selected by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association and three non-attorney members chosen by the governor and approved by the Legislature. This body determines whether a candidate is qualified and sends a list of qualified candidates to the governor who then chooses who will fill the vacancy.

“So, the public participates in the judicial selection basically because you’ve selected the governor and they’re the person whose going to appoint the judge,” Andrews said. “Once a judge is appointed, the judge then stands for retention and this is where folks really have something to say about your judges.”

When a judge stands for retention, the judicial council will create a file on each judge that includes interviews with everyone that appears in the judge’s court on a regular basis, from jurors to social workers, in order to create a well-informed evaluation. This evaluation is then used to recommend either for or against the judge’s retention.

“None out of 10 times, judges are recommended for retention,” Andrews said. “… These are people who have been vetted and found to be not lacking as judges.”

Then, the public is given a “yes” or “no” choice as to whether the judge should retain their seat on the bench. Each judge must receive a majority of “yes” votes in their judicial district for retention.

“The message I find myself giving these days is that … if you have to default to not knowing which way to vote, you have citizens who have done the work for you. You will know if a judge is recommended against (for retention) because it’s a big headline,” Andrews said. “If you don’t know and, assuming you have some confidence in your fellow citizens, probably the default should be yes, rather than no, which is what most people are doing.”

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