Gov. Mike Dunleavy declined to appoint a judge to a vacancy in the Palmer Court, asking for more information on the candidates who were not nominated.

In January, the Alaska Judicial Council narrowed a field of 11 applicants to three nominees: John Cagle, Christina Rankin and Kristin Stohler.

The three judges would have filled two open spots on the Palmer Superior Court. One nominee, John Cagle, was appointed by Dunleavy. Cagle will likely fill the position recently vacated by Judge Gregory Heath, who retired at the end of last year.

Palmer Superior Court Judge Vanessa White will retire next month — a vacancy the governor declined to fill with either of the other two nominees.

Susanne DiPietro, the executive director for the Alaska Judicial Council, said it’s rare for a governor to reject the council’s nominees, but it has happened before under Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2004.

“The council and the governor had a dialogue and the governor had relented and gone ahead and made the appointment,” DiPietro said.

In a news release Thursday, Dunleavy said he was concerned about the list of candidates and “questions whether the judicial selection process was consistent with the merit and qualifications based standard of the Alaska judicial system.”

The Alaska Judicial Council is a nonpartisan citizen committee made up of three attorneys and three community members, with the supreme court chief justice serving as the chair person. Under Alaska’s constitution, the governor is required to choose a person from the judicial council’s list within 45 days of receiving it.

DiPietro has said Alaska has one of the most thorough processes in the national when it comes to selecting judges. The Alaska Judicial Council goes through a months-long process to interview applicants and takes public input on the selection. She said she sent the governor’s office all of the public information the council gathered on the 11 applicants.

In his press release, Dunleavy said he’d requested information on reason the applicants were not selected as nominees to go forward.

“I believe there are qualified candidates that the council inexplicably did not nominate for this position,” Dunleavy wrote, adding later that he wants to “review and consider the Council’s reasoning to determine whether additional qualified candidates could be nominated by the Council for this position.”

DiPietro said, as of Thursday afternoon, she had not received that request.

“If I had gotten such a request, I would have passed it on to the council,” DiPietro said. “I know the chief justice would be more than happy to sit down with a member of the governor’s office to talk about the council’s process and its reasoning.”

Thursday evening, DiPietro said in an email there had been a clerical error by the governor's office and the request had never actually been sent. In response to her queries, the administration discovered the oversight and delivered the letter just after 4 p.m. Thursday. DiPietro reiterated the council welcomes a dialogue with the governor.

However, she said that under the constitutional statute, the governor cannot ask for more names. DiPietro stands by the council’s nomination of Christina Rankin and Kristin Stohler.

“They’re highly qualified, they were among the most qualified of that group. They were terrific candidates,” she said.

Dunleavy appointed Nelson Traverso to the Utqiagvik Superior Court, Stephen Wallace to the Kodiak Superior Court, and David Nesbett to the Anchorage District Court.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include information about the governor's request to the AJC for further information.

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