AD Main Menu

Palin bucks pressure in Supreme Court appointment

Lisa Demer
Photo courtesy Alaska Court System

Gov. Sarah Palin on Wednesday picked an Anchorage judge to fill the latest vacancy on the Alaska Supreme Court despite efforts by a conservative Christian group to convince her to do otherwise.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Morgan Christen, on the bench since 2002, will be just the second woman named to the high court in the 50 years since statehood.

"Alaska's Supreme Court bears the awesome responsibility of ensuring that our court system administers justice in firm accordance with the principles laid down in our state Constitution," Palin said in a written statement. "I have every confidence that Judge Christen has the experience, intellect, wisdom and character to be an outstanding Supreme Court justice."

Under the state Constitution, Palin had to select from among the nominees sent to her by the seven-member Alaska Judicial Council, made up of lawyers, public members appointed by governors and the Supreme Court chief justice, currently Dana Fabe.

Last week, without explaining why, Palin took the unusual step of asking the Judicial Council to send her all information it had on the two finalists, Christen and Palmer Superior Court Judge Eric Smith.

The council nominated them from a slate of six applicants. It takes four council votes for a candidate to be sent to the governor. None of the other candidates received any votes.

The head of the Alaska Family Council -- a Christian pro-family, anti-abortion group -- on Wednesday sent an e-mail to thousands of people asking them to urge Palin to pick Smith, not Christen.

The governor's office received about 100 letters, e-mails and faxes from the public about the Supreme Court appointment, including some from the family council, Palin's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an e-mail. That was not an unusual number, Leighow said.

The family council plea, from group president Jim Minnery, said Smith was "more conservative" and that Christen would be "another activist on the Court." In an interview, Minnery said that was the "general consensus" but he had no specifics.

"I'll be seeing the governor tomorrow. We'll have a good chat," Minnery said after Christen's appointment was announced. He said that Palin is introducing the speaker Thursday evening at a benefit lecture in Anchorage for the family council.

The group didn't really approve of either finalist and believes the Judicial Council should allow Palin to pick from all qualified applicants, Minnery said. The Judicial Council's bylaws direct them to nominate the "most qualified." Former Gov. Frank Murkowski once rejected all three nominees sent to him, then, when the council wouldn't send him more names, appointed from the list.

Extensive information about the two finalists was sent to the governor with the nominations on Feb. 5. It included, among other things, references, Alaska Bar Association survey details and record of community service.

Last week, the governor's office asked the Judicial Council for everything it knew about the nominees, including the "application for this or any other judicial appointment, for retention election, or for any other purpose."

While governors sometimes have questions about nominees, none had ever made such a sweeping request, Larry Cohn, Judicial Council executive director, said.

The council staff delivered packets of additional information to Palin's Anchorage office on Wednesday, excluding only internal work memos and comments where confidentiality was promised.

Aides to the governor wouldn't answer questions about specific concerns that might have prompted the governor's request. However, both Christen and Smith have been involved in organizations that might give Palin pause.

Christen's application included her membership in several charitable groups, including some from her past, but did not mention that she was on the board of Planned Parenthood in the mid-1990s. The organization, which didn't provide abortions in Alaska until 2003, is now on the opposite side of a Palin-supported bill to require girls under 17 to get parental consent for an abortion.

Back in the 1980s, Smith was executive director of the public interest environmental law firm, Trustees for Alaska. The group currently is on the opposite side of Palin over the listing of Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered.

Christen, 47, attended colleges in England, Switzerland and China before graduating from the University of Washington with a bachelor's in international studies. Her law degree is from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. She's currently on the board of the Alaska Community Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation.

Christen will replace retiring Justice Warren Matthews, who has been on the bench nearly 32 years. He turns 70 on April 5. That's the mandatory retirement age for Alaska judges.

Palin now has made two Supreme Court appointments in two years in office. That's just one shy of the number made by former Gov. Tony Knowles in eight years. No vacancies came up during Murkowski's single term.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

PFD: Alaska Bar survey
PDF: Letter to Bailey
PDF: Letter from Bailey
By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com