When voters head to the polls Tuesday, many will be confronted with a list of judges they probably never heard of. However, controversy surrounding an Anchorage judge’s recent ruling in a high-profile assault case is bringing more attention to the power the electorate has over the judiciary.
Alaska is one of 20 states where judges have to run for retention. That’s according to the National Center for State Courts, and the center said Alaska is one of four states that provide state-sanctioned evaluations of judges on the ballot.
“Alaska was the first state to really mandate evaluation of Judges standing for retention, and the council's been doing this since 1976,” Suzanne DiPietro, executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council, said.
The council runs the evaluation process. It factors in interviews with judges, public hearings, how well judges’ rulings hold up in appeal and several other factors. Then, the council scores judges from one to five.
None of this is very exciting, but a recent decision by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey has galvanized an organized campaign to throw him off the bench.
That's because Corey sentenced an Anchorage man named Justin Schneider to probation in an assault case that grabbed national headlines. Schneider pled guilty to second-degree assault. Many viewed his actions as premeditated sexual assault.
Elizabeth Williams is a social worker who started a political action committee encouraging voters to check no when they see Corey’s name on the ballot. Voters from Talkeetna to Homer will vote whether to retain Corey on Tuesday.
“I don’t think I would have started this campaign if Schneider had even gotten six months,” she explained. “Would I think that’s woefully inadequate? Yes, but I probably wouldn’t be taking to the streets in the way that I have.”
What's vexing for the judge's critics is Corey’s evaluation doesn't take this controversial ruling into account. That's because it was completed before Corey issued the decision.
Even so, DePietro said it might not have had much of a bearing on the council's recommendation to retain him.
“We're looking at the judge’s entire performance,” she explained. “On a controversial case, the question is not, do I personally agree with that decision or like that decision? The question is was the decision legally correct?”
Williams is aware of the system. She used to perform research work for the judicial council while working for the University of Alaska Anchorage. She knows both its strengths and its shortcomings.
“I think that’s what the Alaska Judicial Council is good at is going over their entire record, and I fully respect that,” she said. “But I think there are some cases that are so egregious that we need to put more weight on that.”
Some in the legal community see a silver lining stemming from the controversy surrounding the Corey ruling. They say rulings like these get people, much like Williams, to focus on the judicial system.
“When there's controversy, people look, and I'm an optimistic person, I think people learn,” Elaine Andrews said.
Andrews has been there. She's a former superior court judge who said the law has dictated some of her unpopular rulings while on the bench.
And she cautions people not to let one controversial ruling shade their judgement while voting.
“I mean, I certainly have had cases where I know the public is going to be extremely unhappy, and in fact, I'm personally unhappy about the decision I need to render,” she added.
There are 15 judges up for retention in Alaska’s first, third and fourth judicial districts. The full list judges on the ballot and their bios is on the Alaska Judicial Council's website. A summary of each judge’s evaluation score can also be found in the voter’s pamphlet.