Public weighs in on Kenai judge candidates

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Brooke Browning Alowa was a magistrate judge in Kotzebue.

There’s going to be a new Kenai Superior Court judge in town, though his or her arrival will be slightly delayed by a change in selection procedure this year.

The Alaska Judicial Council heard from members of the public Saturday at the Kenai Courthouse before interviewing the six candidates for the Kenai Superior Court judge seat being left open by Carl Bauman, who is not seeking retention this year and will step down in February. Only four people offered comment on the candidates, one of them doing so over the phone.

The six candidates vying for the opening seat are Kenai Magistrate Judge Jennifer Wells, Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders, Assistant Attorney General Lance Joanis in Kenai — who held the position of district attorney before Leaders — Brooke Browning Alowa, an assistant public advocate in Palmer, Fairbanks Magistrate Judge Romano DiBenedetto and Bride Seifert, an administrative law judge in Juneau. Joan Wilson, who is in private practice in Anchorage, was previously the seventh candidate for the Kenai judge seat but has withdrawn her candidacy, according to the Alaska Judicial Council’s website.

The council must give Gov. Bill Walker at least two nominations for each seat that needs to be filled in Alaska — there are additional vacancies in the Bethel, Dillingham and Nome superior courts and on the Court of Appeals. The council will hold a public vote and announce its nominees for the Kenai judge seat on Sunday, said Chief Justice and Alaska Judicial Council Chair Craig Stowers.

Before getting to public comments Saturday, Stowers announced a change to this year’s process of nominating and selecting judges to fill vacancies around the state.

Walker, who Stowers said usually takes the time to interview each of the nominees given to him by the council, has 45 days from the time those nominations are made to make selections. He asked the council to give him more time this year due to an out-of-state medical procedure he is set to have in December, Stowers said.

“Delaying the submission of the names will allow the governor ample time to attend to these important processes,” he said, adding that the council looked to the state constitution for guidance. “It is our judgement that the constitution and the statute permit us in our procedures to accommodate this good-faith request.”

While the council will still announce its nominations Sunday, it will not submit them to the governor until the beginning of January to accommodate his absence from work, Stowers said.

“To his credit, Governor Walker has spent a substantial amount of time actually interviewing every nominee that the council has submitted,” he said. “In the past not all governors have had the time or taken the time to do that level of … personal involvement in interviewing these applicants and I wanted, and the council wanted, to encourage him to do that. I mean, more power to him, and I would hope that this would set a precedent for other governors also to do that extra effort.”

Eric Derleth, a local defense attorney, spoke to the council in favor of the four candidates he knows: Leaders, Wells, Joanis and Alowa.

“I think all four of them actually would be excellent candidates,” he said. “Part of the consideration should be the courthouse we already have … We’re very fortunate to have excellent judges here. I think they give everybody a fair shake. Their demeanors across the board are fantastic, so I think you should try to find somebody who fits in with that, and frankly I think all four of those (candidates) would do that.”

Derleth said he worked briefly with Joanis to settle a case, has practiced against Leaders in court and practiced in front of Wells and, briefly, Alowa when she was a magistrate in Kotzebue. He said Wells would be at the “top of the list,” if he had a choice.

“I consider her somebody who’s got a lot of guts,” he said.

David Haeg, a former hunting guide who was prosecuted for illegally shooting wolves from the air outside a state-prescribed area in 2004, spoke against Leaders as a candidate for the superior court judge vacancy. Haeg, whose subsequent case against the State of Alaska is currently in the Court of Appeals, said he takes issue with the manner in which Leaders has prosecuted cases.

Another commenter, calling in from out of state, spoke against Alowa as a candidate. Another in person at the courthouse added his concerns to the comments against Leaders.

 

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

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