Gov. Mike Dunleavy should have filled a vacant judgeship in Palmer by now, according to Alaska law. He declined to do so, saying he wants more information about applicants that the Alaska Judicial Council chose not to nominate and has planned a meeting with the state's chief justice.

In January, the 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. 

In a news release last week, 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. The council goes through a months-long process to interview applicants and takes public input on the selection. 

According to Susanne DiPietro, the executive director for the council, Alaska's apolitical process of judicial selection and retention is considered "the gold standard," compared to systems in place in the Lower 48. 

During an interview Tuesday, KTVA asked Dunleavy about the issue: 

Reporter: I want to ask you actually about the Palmer judgeship. When do you plan to fill that position?

Gov. Dunleavy: So we have a meeting today with the chief justice to discuss that issue. We were certainly within the constitution in terms of, we have to pull from that list that he provided, but the idea that it has to be 45 days, that’s a legislative issue. But we’re gonna sit down with him today, have a discussion about how we can come together to have a larger pool going forward, as opposed to just two individuals, because I think Alaska deserves a larger pool for us to pick from. So I’m hoping that there’ll be some pretty good outcomes from this conversation today.

Reporter: But you feel that you’re within the constitution right now?

Dunleavy: Because the constitution says you need to pull from the list.

Reporter: Are you going to?

Dunleavy: We’re going to have a discussion today with the chief justice and we’ll see how that goes but I’m hopeful.

Reporter: You’re hopeful that you won’t have to pull from the list for this position or that you...

Dunleavy: I’m hopeful that we can settle this issue after the conversation with the chief justice. 

Chief Justice Joel Bolger, in recent remarks, defended the council's process for vetting and nominating candidates, saying the council aims to nominate the most qualified. 

Alaska's Constitution states: 

"The governor shall fill any vacancy in an office of supreme court justice or superior court judge by appointing one of two or more persons nominated by the judicial council." 

And Alaska Statutes Title 22. (22.10.100.), which Dunleavy referred to as "a legislative issue," states: 

"The governor shall fill a vacancy or appoint a successor to fill an impending vacancy in the office of superior court judge within 45 days after receiving nominations from the judicial council, by appointing one of two or more persons nominated by the council for each actual or impending vacancy." 

Dunleavy did not definitively say Tuesday afternoon whether he plans to follow the constitution and appoint someone from the list to fill the remaining vacant position. He elaborated on his position during a Tuesday morning radio interview telling Alaska Public Media that he understands he must pick from the list, but he wants to see if that list can be broadened. 

Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.

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