Judges are bottom of the ballot, top of the mind for some

Susanne DiPietro is the director of the Alaska Judicial Council. It’s her job to coordinate the state’s impartial oversight of the state’s judicial system. Even she thinks that Alaska voters don’t pay attention to the bottom of the ballot.

“The feedback I get from people is they forget about the judges on the ballot,” she said.

Jim Minnery, director of Alaska Family Action, is hoping voters won’t forget about two judges this year. He’s asking them to vote against Alaska Supreme Court judges Joel Bolger and Peter Maassen.

“The sole reason is the ruling they put forth a couple months back,” Minnery said by cellphone.

In July, Maassen and Bolger joined a majority of justices in ruling against a voter initiative that required the parents of minors seeking an abortion to be notified before that abortion.

Maassen and Bolger each said the initiative — approved by 56 percent of voters in August 2010 — violated the section of the Alaska Constitution that provides privacy protection.

If Alaskans disagree with that ruling, Minnery wants them to know they have the final word.

“Mainly, we just want the Alaskans who voted know the judges don’t necessarily have the final say, and we can bring this issue back to the people,” he said.

This year in Southeast, voters will be asked their opinions on seven judges — Southcentral Alaskans have to pick 23. The Alaska Family Action campaign only targets Maassen and Bolger.

Voting statistics show that Alaskans tend to trail off toward the end of the ballot — fewer votes are cast on items toward the end (or on the back of) the ballot.

“I just finished finishing the ballot, and there’s a lot of little spaces to fill in, and I can see why people would get finger fatigue,” said Elaine Andrews, a former judge and chairwoman of the Alaska Bar Association’s fair and impartial courts committee.

The Alaska Judicial Council has recommended that all judges on the ballot be retained.

“It would be weird if the Council was recommending against a lot of people,” DiPietro said. “It would mean something’s wrong with our selection process.”

Andrews said she agrees with the state’s “gold-standard” system of vetting judges and analyzing their performance.

“It’s a really fair-minded, very in-depth evaluation. There isn’t anyone who does it as well as we do anywhere in the country,” she said.

In mid-October, Andrews was the co-author of an opinion column that criticized Minnery’s campaign.

By phone, she said Alaskans should want judges who base their arguments on the law, not on religious beliefs.

“If there’s a law you don’t like but it’s constitutional, you have to obey it. The court isn’t allowed to set aside constitutional laws because they don’t like them,” she said.

Minnery said that’s not what he’s arguing: The U.S. Supreme Court has justices of different beliefs and different ideas about how the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted.

“When it comes to actual philosophy, I think that’s where the people can actually decide,” he said.

There’s a key difference between the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, Andrews said. The U.S. Constitution is more than 200 years old. Alaska’s constitution is about 60 years old.

“We have the framers; we know what they meant, because some of them are still alive,” she said. “Our constitution is a very current document, and we do not have to guesstimate what the framers thought.”

Election Day is Tuesday. Early voting continues from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays in Juneau at the State Office Building and the Mendenhall Annex.

Joel Bolger

Bolger was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2013. The Alaska Judicial Council’s survey of attorneys gave him a rating of 4.6, and its survey of court employees gave him a rating of 4.8, with both ratings on a 5-point scale. Responding to the survey, Bolger said he has written over 60 opinions and memorandum decisions since being appointed, and the experience “has been a great honor.”

Peter Maassen

Maassen was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2012. The Alaska Judicial Council’s survey of attorneys gave him a rating of 4.6. A survey of court employees gave him a rating of 4.8. Responding to the Judicial Council survey, Maassen admitted that “the learning curve was steep” after he was appointed, but he’s become comfortable enough to “begin my analysis of most issues from a baseline of rough competence.”

Marjorie Allard

Allard was appointed to the Alaska Court of Appeals by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2012. The Alaska Judicial Council survey of attorneys gave her a 4.5 rating, while the court employees’ survey rated her 4.7. Allard called the past three years “a turbulent time for the (appeals) court”, which has seen a drastic rise in its caseload during that period. Allard said she has been working “hard to address the criminal appellate backlog that still faces our court.” She says she is trying to find solutions for the perennial problem of a slow criminal appeals process.

David George

George was appointed to Sitka Superior Court in 2007 by Gov. Sarah Palin. He was recommended for retention by the Judicial Council in 2010 and received 71.19 percent “yes” votes. This year, George received a rating of 3.8 from attorneys, 4.0 from law enforcement officers, 4.3 from social-service workers, 4.3 from court employees and 4.9 from jurors. All rankings were on a 5-point scale. George was below-average on appeals affirmations; 67 percent of his reviewed cases since his last election were upheld on appeal. The statewide average between 2010 and 2015 for Superior Court judges is 79 percent.

In his survey, George said he made a “concerted effort” in the past year “to make the courtroom more understandable for those people who come to court without an attorney.”

He said he predicts increasing legal costs will lead to a rise in the number of people without an attorney in future years.

Philip Pallenberg

Pallenberg was appointed to Juneau Superior Court in 2007 by Gov. Sarah Palin. He was recommended for retention by the Judicial Council in 2010 and received 71.39 percent “yes” votes. This year, Pallenberg received a rating of 4.2 from attorneys, 4.1 from social-service workers, 4.3 from law enforcement, 4.2 from court employees and 4.9 from jurors. Pallenberg was above-average with his rate of appeals affirmations; 90 percent of his reviewed cases since his last election were upheld on appeal.

In his survey, Pallenberg said “there is a learning curve as a new judge, and I think I make better decisions with the benefit of my experience as a judge.”

He said he enjoys “the problem-solving aspect of the work, and the feeling that I am making a difference in people’s lives.”

Trevor Stephens

Stephens was appointed to Ketchikan Superior Court in 2000 by Gov. Tony Knowles. He was retained in the 2004 election with 75.1 percent of the vote and again in 2010 with 75 percent of the vote. This year, he received a rating of 4.6 from attorneys, 4.6 from law enforcement, 4.7 from social-service employees, 4.8 from court employees and 5.0 from jurors.

Since 2010, 89 percent of Stephens’ decisions have been upheld on appeal, which is above average from superior court judges in the present term.

In his survey, Stephens says he enjoys being a Superior Court judge and is “better, more knowledgeable and experienced than I was at the start of my present term.”

Stephens, as one of the senior Superior Court judges in the state, frequently trains new judges and teaches youth court programs.

Thomas Nave

Nave was appointed to Juneau District Court in 2010 by Gov. Sean Parnell. He received a rating of 4.4 from attorneys, 4.5 from law enforcement, 4.6 from court employees and 4.9 from jurors in the Judicial Council survey. Only two of his decisions were appealed, and both were upheld on appeal.

In his survey, Nave said some aspects of his job presented challenges and required study, but he called himself “comfortable with my performance of the past five years.”

“I am well-received by the Bar as well as law enforcement and jurors,” he wrote. “Defendants respond to me when I engage them. … I would have been comfortable appearing before a judge with my attitude and demeanor.”

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