Public input helps select Palmer judge nominees
The Palmer Courthouse will soon have two new Superior Court judges on the bench.
The Alaska Judicial Council wrapped up a five-month process Tuesday of interviewing 10 applicants for the positions, sending three finalists' names to Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
"Council staff investigated the qualifications of the attorneys, their experience, their temperament, their fairness, their objectivity, their diligence," said the council's executive director, Susanne DiPietro.
The seven-member council – which includes three attorneys, three members of the public and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court – is a non-partisan citizens commission created by the Alaska Constitution.
DiPietro said the council is there to make sure judges are selected on merit, since they are not elected like in some other states.
"That's why we really have such a strong bench here in Alaska," she said.
One of the final parts of the selection process is a public hearing, where people have the opportunity to speak for or against candidates or talk generally about qualities they'd like to see in a judge.
"The judicial council is very interested in hearing from the community what are the particular challenges in that community, what are the particular strengths of that community, so they can take that into account when they're reviewing the people before them," DiPietro said.
While each public hearing is publicized the same way, the turnout for the meetings varies drastically. DiPietro said one person showed up for a recent hearing on Anchorage District Court applicants.
"On the other hand the council members have been to Dillingham, Bethel and other smaller communities and it's been standing room only," she said. "The council really appreciates the larger crowds."
More than a dozen people attended Palmer's public hearing, with nine giving testimony.
Timothy Gossett spoke in support of Kristen Stohler, who represented him in a custody case several years ago.
"Kristen is a person of outstanding moral character," Gossett said. "There were numerous situations in our case where she was presented with an opportunity to do what was right or do what would further our case. Time and time again she always chose to do what was right."
Ben and Edie Grunwald both spoke in support of judicial candidate Melissa Wininger-Howard, currently the Palmer assistant district attorney prosecuting two remaining suspects in the 2016 murder of their son David. Erick Almandinger and Dominic Johnson have both been convicted in the case.
"Melissa Howard is very capable, articulate, fair, hard-working," Ben Grunwald told the council.
Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey recommended the borough attorney, Nicholas Spiropoulos.
"I find Nick has the judicial temperament needed for the position; he demonstrates that daily," Moosey said.
Five more candidates rounded out the field: magistrate judges Tara Logsdon and Peter R. Ramgren, assistant DA and public advocate Shawn Traini and Andrew Weinraub, and attorney Douglas C. Perkins.
The council ultimately selected three other people for the Palmer positions, giving them unanimous recommendations: attorneys Stohler and Christina Rankin, as well as Alaska Medicaid Fraud Control Unit head John Cagle. Their names will be given to Dunleavy, who has 45 days to fill the vacancies.
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