In less than a week, voters in Alaska will decide whether to retain 15 judges statewide. One of them, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey, has been the center of a national controversy and outrage that threatens his future on the bench.

 

No jail time for Justin Schneider

On Sept. 19, Judge Corey accepted a plea deal that let Justin Schneider leave the courtroom without spending any additional time in jail for a midday attack of an Alaska Native woman.

According to court documents, Schneider lured her into his car with the promise of a ride to Muldoon, then took her to a dead-end road in a Turnagain neighborhood where he strangled her unconscious and masturbated on her. He told her he needed her to think she was going to die in order to achieve sexual satisfaction.

 

Schneider’s victim could not be reached by phone on the day of the hearing, and had no voice in the plea agreement.

Judge Corey called the outcome of Schneider’s case “breathtaking.” He did so in front of a court clerk, Schneider, defense attorney Michael Moberly, prosecutor Andrew Grannik, a man and a woman appearing to be Schneider’s parents, and a KTVA reporter and photojournalist.

For more than seven minutes, Judge Corey explained his decision to accept the plea deal that would allow Schneider to avoid jail time.

 

“I do find that the proposal for resolving this case is a legal result. What I mean by that is, it falls within those legal constraints which guide and control and limit my actions,” he said.

 

“No More Free Passes”

Within days of the plea deal, shock and outrage rippled across the nation as news of the “no jail time” agreement spread through the Lower 48.

At home in Alaska, sexual assault survivor Elizabeth Williams began mobilizing a grassroots campaign to oust Judge Corey, whose name will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot for retention.

"I was just absolutely appalled that [Schneider] was going to be out on the streets again, and that Alaskan women were again going to be let down by the justice system," Williams said. "I was also outraged that this woman didn't have a voice in the court proceeding, and that no one was advocating for her and no one was speaking for her needs including the judge." 

The campaign’s name, No More Free Passes, references a remark made by Grannik during the hearing, that some might consider Schneider’s sentence a “pass.”

 

Similar rhetoric was present at a rally hosted by the campaign two weeks after the hearing.

Rousing the crowd, Lisa Wade, who is a member of the Chickaloon Tribal Council, said, "We're not gonna let our indigenous women go missing. We're not gonna let them be murdered, assaulted, and we're certainly not gonna let their perpetrators off with a pass.” 

 

“Change bad laws, not good judges”

At the rally, a lone supporter of Judge Corey held a sign: “Change the Law, Keep the Judge.”

Kieran Braun explained, “I think it’s a dangerous precedent to set that we let the influence of the public sway a judge’s decisions.”

 

In response to the campaign to unseat him, those who support Judge Corey have offered public statements in his defense.

Longtime Alaska defense attorney Rex Butler said he’s never seen a movement of this nature against a sitting judge, and wonders whether people know what powers judges do and do not have.

“It's just grossly unfair for the community to look and say, ‘We want take this out on Judge Corey,’” said Butler, adding “He's got to follow the law just like anyone else.”

Perhaps the most powerful voice supporting Judge Corey comes from his wife, Dayna Corey. In an op-ed published by the Anchorage Daily News, she recounted her own brutal rape at knifepoint.

“… These outrages do not sit at my husband’s feet,” she wrote, “Don’t make him your scapegoat. Make real changes. Change the laws.”

 

A “loophole” in Alaska law

According to multiple legal experts, while Judge Corey could have continued the hearing and asked for more information from the parties, he ultimately had only two choices: accept or reject the plea deal. 

The Department of Law reviewed the outcome of the case and found that Schneider was sentenced within Alaska State Law, which doesn’t currently consider unwanted contact with semen a sexual offense. 

District Attorney Richard Allen has defended the deal, saying his office was not confident it could prove a kidnapping charge, leaving them with a punishment range of zero to two years for assault, the second-most serious charge on which Schneider was indicted.

 

Critics argue Judge Corey should have exercised his power to reject the deal, and the state should have tried harder to find the victim and go to trial.

Allen maintains that even if Schneider had been convicted by a jury, a plea deal was the only way to require Schneider to undergo sex offender treatment because he wasn’t charged with a sex crime.

Gov. Bill Walker, an independent running for re-election at the time, called the sentence “unjust” and announced plans to propose changes to state law that would make the act of causing someone to have unwanted contact with semen a sexual offense, as well as a felony.  

 

A recommendation by the Alaska Judicial Council

 The Alaska Judicial Council (AJC) is recommending every judge on the ballot for retention.

Since directed by the Alaska Legislature to evaluate judges standing for retention in 1976, the AJC has only recommended against a handful of judges, something executive director Susanne DiPietro attributes to the extremely selective and apolitical vetting process used to put judges on the bench.

The recommendation for retention is far from a rubber stamp. It's considered the "gold standard," according to DiPietro.

 

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

The council then reviews peremptory challenge rates — how often a party chooses to request a different judge — as well as recusal rates, notes how often trial judges are reversed on appeal, and 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.  

 

While Judge Corey received high marks, the recommendation was made before the Schneider case. Williams believes the case would have impacted Judge Corey’s survey results.

According to a statement by recently retired Anchorage Police Department Lt. John McKinnon posted to the 'Vote NO on Judge Corey' campaign’s Facebook page, the case impacted his vote.

“I’m sure Judge Cory is a nice man and it’s unfortunate he’s caught in this storm, but that’s what he signed up for when he became a judge,” McKinnon wrote, “If the voters retain Judge Corey it’s on them, but on this case he doesn’t get a 'pass' from me.”

 

In His Own Words

Addressing voters directly for the first time, Judge Corey appeared in a video posted on the Facebook page ‘Vote Yes for Judge Corey’ with three points for voters.

First, he says state law prohibits him from discussing the Schneider case right now.

Secondly, while he's been widely criticized for not mentioning Schneider’s victim in his remarks during the hearing, Corey says, “Victims are at the forefront of my mind every single hearing.”

Lastly, he reminds voters, “We judges must follow the law even when that produces a result that we strongly dislike.” 

 

Beyond the Ballot 

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, Williams says the campaign is just getting started.

“A lot of people have criticized us, ‘Why are you singling out Judge Corey?’ We're not, but it's an election and so that's what we're focusing on right now,” Williams said. “After election night, we will fully go into legislative advocacy mode to fix those loopholes that have existed for far too long.”  

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