Retiring from the high court, Alaska’s chief justice defends its system of selecting judges

Alaska Chief Justice Daniel Winfree receives applause from state legislators after he concluded the state’s annual speech to the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) – Members of the Senate coalition majority say they don’t expect any changes to the system before the 2024 election, but others aren’t sure

In his final speech before retirement on Wednesday, Alaska Chief Justice Daniel Winfree strongly defended the state’s merit-based process for selecting judges, telling the state’s 60 lawmakers that he was aware that some of them were not apolitical judges want, but he believes it’s an important principle to keep in mind.

“With apologies to Led Zeppelin and ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ justice should be a roll and a roll,” Winfree said.

Winfree’s remarks were widely praised by lawmakers. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, called it “the best speech I have ever heard from a Chief Justice,” and similar praise came from House Majority Speaker Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, and the Chair of the House Minority, Calvin Schrage. I anchorage.

Winfree also said the court system is “virtually at the same level of activity and productivity as it was before the pandemic,” limiting in-person hearings.

This led to a significant backlog of cases, in part because defendants were reluctant to accept pleadings without a fixed hearing date.

Cases are being processed now that court hearings have resumed, Winfree said, although he noted that the number of pending criminal cases remained higher than normal.

“This is very frustrating given all the efforts and incremental progress we made before the pandemic,” he said.

A shortage of public defenders, particularly in rural Alaska, is also impeding the progress of criminal cases, Winfree said in an interview after the speech.

He also pointed to the creation of a grant-funded body to help landlords and renters mediate eviction cases before the trial, and said the court system could expand its use of online hearings instead of in-person trials.

Winfree will be replaced as Chief Justice next week by Peter Maassen, the second-oldest member of the court, and his voice cracked as he delivered his final farewell, describing himself as “a kid from Fairbanks with a teenage dream of one day helping to matter.” will make decisions for Alaska.”

“And 15 years ago, suddenly I was one of five people running the Alaskan government’s Department of Justice,” he said. “I gave everything I had to give and loved every minute of every day. To all the other Alaskan kids out there, young and old, live your dreams and make Alaska an even better place for all of us.”

Saddler said he was touched and impressed by Winfree’s departure, but other lawmakers said it was his comments on the court withholding that caught their attention.

Under the Alaska Constitution, residents of the state do not elect judges. Instead, licensed attorneys are encouraged to apply for open judgeship, and those applications are reviewed by the Alaska Judicial Council, a seven-member body that includes three members elected by the Alaska Bar Association, three members appointed by the governor, and the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice only votes in the event of a tie.

The council appoints a shortlist of nominees, and the governor selects from that list.

Political considerations are expressly excluded from the deliberations of the Council.

“Alaska should always pay attention to that,” Winfree said after the speech regarding the judicial selection process, “and make sure that nothing changes.”

Winfree is retiring next week, and his imminent departure from government service seemed to give him a platform to more ardently defend a system sometimes criticized by those unhappy with the outcome.

The law is like the riverbanks on either side of a stream, he told lawmakers, using an analogy from his law school days. Politics, he said, is the current within those banks, and the courts are responsible for ensuring that the river does not overflow its banks.

When courts try to respond to public opinion, “justice and the rule of law mean nothing,” he said.

He acknowledged criticism of some court decisions but shrugged.

“It seems like most people are basing their judgments on our decisions based solely on how their internet sources characterize the outcome,” he said.

Those who have introduced legislation aimed at changing some of Alaska’s judge-selection laws said they think Winfree is targeting them, perhaps wrongly.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, introduced a bill early in the legislature that would change elements of the statutory judicial selection process, not the Constitution.

He said he didn’t want to see elected judges, but he wanted to “see some input into the process alongside a trade organization, the Alaska Bar Association.”

Debates during the Alaskan constitutional convention of the 1950s included concerns that the judicial selection process lacked sufficient public participation.

Under Shower’s proposal and a similar proposal in the House of Representatives by Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, a governor could nominate candidates for the Judiciary Council, and if any of those candidates are selected for a vacancy, he or she would be subject to a confirmatory vote in the legislature. That would indirectly involve the public, Shower said.

The bill has yet to be heard in committee, and members of the Senate majority faction have said they are uninterested in making changes.

“I think we have the best judicial selection system in the United States. I think electing judges is a bad idea,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage and practicing attorney.

“Seventy percent of Alaskans said no to that option just a few months ago,” said Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, referring to the results of the state’s once-a-decade referendum on whether or not to hold a constitutional assembly .

Supporters of the referendum had advocated a convention to make changes in the selection of judges, among other things.

Winfree said after the speech that he thought the defeat in the Convention vote had dampened the urge to change the selection process, but it was difficult to say.

Giessel flatly said there would be no change in the next two years leading up to the 2024 election.

Shower said he wasn’t sure.

“I know there are some members of the House who are interested in running this and we will start horse trading at the end,” he said.

Under his scenario, a judge-selection bill that passes the House of Representatives and is stuck in the Senate could move forward if senators want some of their legislation cleared by the House before the 2024 election.

Previous editions of the Legislature have seen lawmakers trade progress on one bill for progress on another, and it’s not out of the question that the same thing could happen again, Shower said.

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