Larry Cohn: Decision whether to retain judges is important

By LARRY COHNOctober 22, 2012 

On Election Day, after you vote for the candidates for president, vice president, Congress and the Alaska Legislature, you will be asked to vote on whether 19 Alaska judges should serve another term in office. Ballot fatigue may tempt you to stop before you get to the judges on the ballot. And you may wonder why you should care.

You should care because chances are that you or a close friend or family member will appear before a judge at some point. Judges have the power to preserve your rights as a citizen, determine child custody and other important family matters, resolve business disputes both large and small, send people to jail and make other decisions that affect citizens in fundamental ways. You do a public service to your fellow Alaskans by voting to retain judges who perform well.

You may feel that you do not have enough information to vote for these judges. But you can get that information. By law, the Alaska Judicial Council, a nonpartisan independent citizens' commission created by the Alaska Constitution, is required to provide you with the information you need to make an informed vote and to recommend whether or not you should retain each judge on the ballot.

You may ask, who is on the Judicial Council? The council includes three public citizen members appointed by the governor and three attorney members appointed by the Alaska Bar Association. The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court serves as chairperson. Members serve as volunteers and represent different regions of the state. Current members include a retired Air Force pilot, a schoolteacher, a security officer with nearly 30 years of public safety experience, and three attorneys in private practice, including two multi-generation Alaskans. Past members have included victims' advocates, a police chief, a former attorney general, the clerk of Alaska's constitutional convention, and a former chief of staff to Gov. Jay Hammond.

You may wonder, how does the council evaluate judges? The council asks the people who most frequently appear in court. The council surveys thousands of Alaskans including police, probation officers, court employees, attorneys, jurors, social workers and those who serve as advocates for abused and neglected children. They rate the judges on legal ability, diligence, temperament, fairness and overall performance. The council reviews how often a trial judge was affirmed or reversed on appeal, whether the judge has been involved in any disciplinary proceedings and whether the judge's pay was withheld for an untimely decision. The council conducts interviews and listens to court proceedings, solicits feedback about judges on its website and holds statewide public hearings on the judges' performance.

Want to know more? You can review summaries of the council's evaluations in the Official Election Pamphlet and on the council's website at knowyouralaskajudges.com. Alaska publishes more information about judicial performance than anywhere in the country -- or, for that matter, the world.

Should you or someone close to you appear in court, the Judicial Court expects the judge to fairly and impartially apply the law, even if it requires the judge to issue a decision that is not popular or that conflicts with the judge's personal beliefs. When you vote, remember that efforts to unseat a judge for political or ideological reasons may be aimed at affecting future decisions of other judges. When such efforts succeed, other judges may be tempted to be guided by what is popular, making it less likely that you will be treated fairly and impartially if you are in court.

Our constitutional framers understood that an independent judiciary was needed to ensure our system of checks and balances. As former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist once said: "The Constitution protects judicial independence not to benefit judges, but to promote the rule of law: Judges are expected to administer the law fairly, without regard to public reaction."

The Alaska Judicial Council has recommended that you vote to retain all 19 judges on the ballot. Should you follow this recommendation? Go to knowyouralaskajudges.com and decide for yourself.

Larry Cohn is executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council.

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