Judging by the number of attorneys making their way into Courtroom 1 in the Kenai Courthouse on a Thursday afternoon, the installation of Superior Court Judge Jennifer Wells might have been Kenai’s legal event of the year.
Wells, a 22-year veteran of the Alaska court system who has served as a magistrate judge in Kenai since 2007, was officially sworn in as a Kenai Superior Court judge in a ceremony Thursday at the Kenai Courthouse. She replaces former Superior Court Judge Carl Bauman, who retired in February. The Superior Court, a trial court of general jurisdiction, has the authority to hear both civil and criminal cases properly brought before the state courts and is spread among 42 judges around the state.
Wells took the oath as a Superior Court judge before a room packed with family, friends and professional peers, both lawyers who’d had her in court and other judges who had worked with her. Many spoke at the ceremony, congratulating Wells and sharing stories.
“Today is a special day of joy and celebration as we witness, at long last, the installation of Jennifer Wells as the next Superior Court judge,” said Craig Stowers, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, who presided over the ceremony Thursday.
Many said they know Wells from her other positions around the state. Wells started as a clerk for now Alaska Supreme Court Senior Justice Dana Fabe in 1990 after graduating from law school in Boston. Fabe, who attended the ceremony by phone, said her work ethic showed then and said she shows many of the qualities of an excellent judge.
“Because when people come into Judge Wells’ court room, they know that she cares about their problems and she cares about getting it right,” Fabe said. “They know that she will listen to them and will treat them with respect. They know that she will work hard to understand their disputes as if they were her own and the law that applies and that she will be perceptive and thoughtful and even-handed in resolving them.”
Wells originally worked in Kenai as an assistant public defender before moving into the Interior to serve as a magistrate judge in Tok for three years. She then moved to Anchorage for a decade to serve as Committing Magistrate Judge and Standing Master before returning to Kenai as a magistrate judge.
Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran said during her comments that Wells was already distinguished for her hard work at the Kenai Courthouse, including tackling the complex court schedule and laying foundational work in the launch of the Henu’ Wellness Court, a joint jurisdictional court between the Alaska Court System and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, for which Moran serves as the state judge. Part of the reason Wells applied for the Superior Court position is to allow her to take over the position with the wellness court if Moran retires, she said in a previous interview.
Moran said the Superior Court seat has some “pretty big shoes to fill” but was confident Wells is up to the challenge.
“She has always shown herself to be a dedicated public servant,” she said. “…With such weighty experience, I know she’ll be a powerhouse on the bench and will help with the heavy lifting in our case load,” she added, eliciting a laugh from the crowd.
Gwen Neal, the president of the Kenai Peninsula Bar Association, congratulated Wells in a short speech, saying the association’s members were glad to see Wells selected for the seat.
“The Kenai Peninsula Bar Association is really grateful for the wealth of expertise and experience that you have brought to this court already and that you will continue to bring to the court as a superior court judge,” she said. “We’re really grateful for that. We’re grateful for the continuity that you will bring to the Superior Court … and as the years go by, they’ll be grateful that you’re there, continuing on in this position and bringing your history along with you.”
In her own comments, Wells thanked her friends and family and the Kenai and Anchorage court staff for their support. She said she was happy the local legal community supported her for the position, even though she said she has likely butted heads with many of the attorneys in various cases in the decade she has worked in Kenai.
“Because I have been here so long, even if you have left the court thinking I have lost my mind, I hope that the one thing you do know is I am absolutely committed to this community and that I work hard and that I try to do my best and I hope to be able to continue to serve it,” she said.