President Donald Trump’s pick to be Alaska’s next U.S. District Court judge, Joshua Kindred, got a low rating on a poll of the Alaska Bar Association, but he has a least one characteristic that’s important to the Trump administration: youth.
His confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Wednesday.
In selecting him, Trump veered from the process Alaska’s senators normally employ to ensure appointments don’t look like backroom deals.
Trump’s first pick for the Alaska vacancy, Jonathan Katchen, took some heat for being, at 42, relatively young and inexperienced, and for scoring near the bottom on a poll of Alaska attorneys. Katchen later withdrew his name.
Trump’s current pick, Kindred, is 41, and he scored even lower.
But the Bar poll, at least what’s been made public, doesn’t provide a full picture.
We’ll get to that. First, let’s review:
The Constitution gives the president the power to nominate federal judges to lifetime appointments, and the Senate confirms or rejects them. But it’s been the custom for about 200 years that the two home-state senators recommend candidates for the president to appoint, at least when the senators and the president are of the same party.
There’s plenty of room for the appearance of favoritism or cronyism to infect the process, so in some states, senators turn to bipartisan commissions to recommend names. At least since 2001, Alaska’s U.S. senators have asked the Alaska Bar Association to conduct a poll of its members.
“When I came in, I suggested to Sen. (Ted) Stevens that I thought a bar poll would be a good way, because it gets Alaskans kind of engaged in that process,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.
As Murkowski remembers it, Stevens reluctantly agreed, but he relied on a bar poll for at least one judicial nomination before she took office.
In 2017, at the request of Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, the Alaska Bar Association collected names of applicants for the current federal court vacancy, then asked its members to rate each candidate. Kindred came in 16th out of 20 candidates on the poll. Only 15% of respondents considered him “extremely” or “well” qualified. But that doesn’t mean most Alaska attorneys consider Kindred unfit. The Bar Association won’t release all the data so it’s impossible to say how many respondents just didn’t know him.
“The Bar Association is taking the position that they’re not authorized to release any more information than they have released, which is a partial view of the bar poll,” said state Superior Court Senior Judge Elaine Andrews, who chairs the Bar Association’s committee on fair and impartial courts. She says the Bar poll is a valuable tool.
“I think it provides a measure of confidence to the public that the person being selected has some standing in the legal community,” she said. “It helps give some confidence that it actually is what you know, not who you know.”
But are Alaska’s senators really making use of that tool as they recommend names to the president?
“No, I haven’t looked at the Bar poll,” Sullivan said in October.
Murkowski insists she did consider the Bar poll. After Katchen withdrew his name in 2018, other Alaskans contacted her to put their names forward. Murkowski said she limited her recommendations to those the Bar Association rated.
“I’m not going to take someone and move them to the White House unless they’ve gone through our process,” she said.
As for choosing the 16th-rated candidate, Murkowski admitted Kindred was not the senators’ first choice, or their second. The White House, she said, rejected several rounds of recommendations.
“I don’t think I’m divulging any great secrets: This administration has made it very clear they are looking for younger men and women to serve on the bench,” she said.
Many of the top-rated attorneys on the Bar poll are a lot older. No. 3, former Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty, has been practicing law almost as long as Kindred’s been alive. But, Murkowski says, Kindred has a broad range of experience, in civil and criminal cases.
“I don’t want it to appear like ‘we moved through everybody else and this was all we had left,’ because that is not the case with Josh,” she said.
Kindred previously worked in the district attorney’s office in Anchorage, and for an oil industry trade association. He is now an Interior Department attorney. Murkowski says his understanding of Alaska’s public land laws is especially valuable.
Trump has filled so many judicial vacancies that one in four appellate judges is now a Trump appointee, and thanks to his emphasis on youth in these lifetime appointments, they’ll be issuing opinions decades after he has left office.
The Alaska federal seat is one of more than 80 District Court vacancies remaining.