How Alaska decides if a judge can stay on the bench

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger administers the oath of office to Superior Court Judge Amy Gurton Mead. Watching, seated from far left, is Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg, Senior Judge Louis Menendez, and Ketchikan Superior Court Judge William Carey.
Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger administers the oath of office to Superior Court Judge Amy Gurton Mead. Watching, seated from far left, is Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg, Senior Judge Louis Menendez, and Ketchikan Superior Court Judge William Carey. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Nearly two dozen judges will be on the Nov. 3 state election ballot. Alaskans won’t be voting on all of them, just those judges in their particular area. 

But Alaska’s system of keeping or removing judges from the bench sidesteps much of the politics that dominate the judicial process in some other states.

Trial judges, supreme court justices and their opposition run television campaign ads outside of Alaska. 

Elaine Andrews, a retired state District and Superior Court judge, said she’s glad she didn’t have to raise money, make campaign speeches and run ads to stay on the bench. 

“I can assure [that] I would not have the job if it wasn’t in Alaska because I would not do what’s required to be done to have the job in other states. I wouldn’t do it,” Andrews said.

Campaigning, she said, would set up many ethical compromises and conflicts of interest.

“It’s hard for the public to believe that a judge is impartial when they show up to court and the person on the other side just contributed $5,000 to the judge’s reelection campaign. It just doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Here’s how the retention election in Alaska works.

Instead of a partisan campaign and election, sitting Alaska judges are simply listed on the ballot. If 50% or more of voters vote “yes,” then the judge would continue serving on the bench. Or, voters would vote “no” if they think a judge should be removed.

Susanne DiPietro is executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council, a citizens panel devoted to vetting potential new judges and investigating sitting judges before they come up for retention.

“It is an extremely thorough and nonpartisan evaluation,” DiPietro said, recently explaining the process to the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Louis Menendez served on the Superior Court in Juneau for seven years. He appeared on the ballot for retention almost midway through his term.

“The process we have in Alaska is quite remarkable. I think the process the council goes through is so time-consuming and so difficult,” Menendez said. “They put an awful lot of themselves into that.”

Menendez said the council surveyed all attorneys, public safety officers, social service workers, jurors, and court employees who worked with him. Call it a public report card. It included numeric ratings and written feedback about his performance and ability.

Menendez said he took those ratings and comments to heart. 

“I learned an awful lot about that process. They congratulate you and they criticize you in the same situation,” he said. “I think it is all helpful to what we do as judges and how we learn, and how that learning process is continuous from the day you’re appointed to the day you leave the bench.”

DiPietro said the council also investigates judges for any ethical complaints and getting their work done on time. It also helps if they work on judicial reform efforts.

“And, actually this year [the Alaska Judicial Council] has recommended that all the judges be retained in office for the reason that the judges have met the performance standards,” DiPietro said.“The judges have done a good job in office.”

Voters can see those ratings and the Alaska Judicial Council’s recommendations on their website or in the voters election pamphlet that comes in the mail.

Author and legal researcher Albert Klumpp said Alaska was the first state to incorporate this kind of non-partisan, merit-based process, called the Missouri Plan, to install and keep fair and impartial judges in every state court. 

For one, it virtually eliminates campaign fundraising. Also, Klump said that there was the idea that the process would reduce the influence of political parties.

“And, of course, back then in the Progressive Era, that was the big concern,” Klumpp said. “And then, you also had the point that it was going to give voters some assistance in sorting through all these candidates that they were probably weren’t very familiar with and try to pick out the most likely candidates to become good judges.”

At least 36 states have a version of the Missouri Plan in place for some or most of their state courts.

That’s not to say, though, that politics is completely absent in Alaska’s process.

For reasons still undetermined, Klumpp said large blocks of Alaska voters will routinely vote “no” or against keeping judges on the bench. Judges are also targeted for removal by special interest groups. 

For example, Alaska Supreme Court Justice Susan Carney is opposed by the group Alaskans for Judicial Reform, though their reasons don’t appear to target her personally. Rather, they take issue with the court’s decisions on Alaska’s sex offender registry, abortion funding, and the Permanent Fund Dividend. Carney just happens to be the justice who is up for a retention vote this year. 

Former Alaska attorneys general and the group Vote Yes – Retain Justice Susan Carney have come to her defense to keep her on the bench. And that is allowed. 

Sitting judges in Alaska can’t campaign for retention unless it’s in response to an opposition group. Otherwise, all they can do is put out basic biographical information about themselves. 

That’s the idea behind AnchorageJudges.com

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Yvonne Lamoureux set up the website featuring herself and four other judges.

“I think that people don’t realize that there’s a lot of judges up for retention and it’s not always easy to access all the information,” Lamoureaux said. “So, we tried to make it accessible for those who wanted to learn more.” 

Klumpp said Alaska voters have approved over 99% of all judges on the ballot since statehood. It’s rare for a judge to be removed. But voter percentages for approval have declined over the years.

You can learn more about the judges on this year’s ballot on the Alaska Judicial Council website.