Judges do not make the laws, but they are responsible for upholding them. They also may be the most overlooked names on the ballot. 

"I often hear voters say, 'Oh, I forgot about the judges on the ballot,' and actually our constitutional founders sort of anticipated that this would be something important for the voters," explained Susanne DiPietro, executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council. 

 It's not uncommon for Alaskans to vote either 'Yes' or 'No' for the retention of every judge on the ballot without knowledge of who they are or how they've performed on the bench — despite the efforts of the Alaska Judicial Council. 

Created by the Constitution: The Alaska Judicial Council 

The Judicial Council is a non-partisan citizens commission created by the Alaska Constitution that screens and nominates people to fill judicial vacancies.

In 1976, the Legislature directed the council to evaluate the performance of judges who are standing for retention.

Since then, the council has recommended all but a handful of judges for retention, but the recommendation is far from a rubber stamp. It's considered the "gold standard," according to DiPietro. 

"The council's evaluation procedures were actually some of the first in the country and they are still regarded as the most thorough, really, in the entire nation," said DiPietro.

In order to fully understand why most judges receive high marks on their retention evaluations, DiPietro says it's important to understand the extremely selective vetting process each judge underwent before being appointed to the bench. 

"There are qualified individuals that the council does not nominate," she explained, saying only the most qualified, based on merit, will receive a nomination. 

After a review process that includes public testimony, the council must submit at least two names to the governor, who then must appoint someone from the list to fill the judicial vacancy. 

"With such a rigorous and apolitical process that goes into the selection of judges, it is not surprising, in fact, you would be a little worried if people who were getting on the bench were then not able to perform," said DiPietro. 

  • Three members, who are not attorneys, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by a majority of each house of the Alaska Legislature. 
  • Three attorney members are elected by their peers in an advisory ballot and are appointed by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association, an entity created and authorized by the Alaska Legislature.
  • The Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court serves as chair. (The Chief Justice does not vote unless his or her vote can affect an outcome.) 

 

The members serve staggered terms on a volunteer basis, receiving no financial benefits outside of reimbursements for travel expenses. 

The current Judicial Council Members live in Nome, Fairbanks, Chugiak, Anchorage and Sitka; two of them are Alaska Native women. 

"The Gold Standard" 

Evaluating judges for retention is a process that starts a year in advance of the election in which their name will appear on the ballot. The evaluation involves analysis of decisions made over their most recent period on the bench and surveys completed by Alaskans. 

According to the election pamphlet, the council is looking at: 

  • Integrity, diligence, impartiality, fairness, temperament and legal ability. 
  • Ability to manage caseloads.
  • Overall performance of their duties in and out of the courtroom, including judgment. 

The council surveys attorneys, law enforcement officers, court employees and jurors, asking them to rate judges based on their experiences with them. 

"The question is not — at least in the council's evaluation process — 'Do I agree or disagree with the decision that the judge made,'" said DiPietro, but rather, "Did he make it thoughtfully, did he follow the law; was he affirmed on appeal, did she listen, did she treat parties with respect, did she hear all the information." 

In addition to surveying thousands of Alaskans, the council reviews peremptory challenge rates — how often a party chooses to request a different judge — as well as recusal rates. 

The council also notes how often trial judges are reversed on appeal, including appellate affirmance rates in their public evaluation report. 

Lastly, the council considers any instances in which a judge's salary was withheld due to unfinished work.  

A one-page summary of the council's findings is provided to voters through the state's election pamphlet, but dozens of pages of information are available for each judge on the Judicial Council's website.

On the 2018 Ballot

There are 15 judges up for retention across the state. All of them are recommended for retention by the Judicial Council, but only voters in three of Alaska's four judicial districts will have judges on their ballot. 

First Judicial District: 

William B. Carey — Ketchikan Superior Court

Kevin G. Miller — Ketchikan District Court

Kirsten Swanson — Juneau District Court

Third Judicial District: 

Michael D. Corey — Anchorage Superior Court

William F. Morse — Anchorage Superior Court

Herman G. Walker, Jr. — Anchorage Superior Court

Michael L. Wolverton — Anchorage Superior Court

Jo-Ann M. Chung — Anchorage District Court

Brian K. Clark — Anchorage District Court

Sharon A.S. Illsley — Kenai District Court

William L. Estelle — Palmer District Court

John W. Wolfe — Palmer District Court

Fourth Judicial District: 

Paul R. Lyle — Fairbanks Superior Court

Michael P. McConahy — Fairbanks Superior Court

Benjamin A. Seekins — Fairbanks District Court 

Retention of Judges in Alaska History

Since the Alaska Judicial Council started evaluating judges standing for retention, it has recommended against the retention of only a handful, DiPietro said. 

Alaska voters have only chosen not to retain four judges during that time, all of whom were not recommended for retention by the council. 

Judges are usually retained by an average of 60 percent of voters, according to DiPietro, an estimate backed up by a check of election results for past years. 

Alaska voters have never chosen to unseat a judge who the council recommended for retention. 

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