Humor, tough questions mark judges' confirmation hearings

Lisa Demer

Alaska Justice Morgan Christen mixed it up with Sen. Al Franken. Sharon Gleason, an Alaska Superior Court judge, took tough questions from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. And they both got a nod of approval from Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who's the former chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Christen, an Alaska Supreme Court justice, and Gleason, presiding judge for Anchorage Superior Court, are up for federal judgeships. They underwent their confirmation hearings Wednesday before the judiciary panel and have support from both of Alaska's U.S. senators.

Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, recommended the candidates to President Obama, filling the traditional role of a senator from the same party as the president. He praised both judges on Wednesday and said his only regret is that the state court bench "will lose two of their finest." If Gleason is elevated to the federal system, Anchorage will be left with no female Superior Court judges. The other 14 are all men.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski also backs the nominations. She called Wednesday's hearing historic. If Christen and Gleason are confirmed by the Senate, they will be the first Alaska women to serve on the federal bench.

But despite the bipartisan support, a decision by the Senate could take weeks or months. According to an analysis by Judiciary Committee staff, Obama's judicial appointments are taking far longer to get an up-or-down vote than did those by former President George W. Bush.

Christen, appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2009 by then-Gov. Sarah Palin, is up for a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Christen also served seven years as a Superior Court judge in Anchorage.


At one point early in the questioning, Christen blurted out that something strange had happened in the hearing room, like a noise or a flash.

Sen. Christopher Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, was chairing the hearing and said maybe it was thunder.

Or "maybe it was a resolution of the debt ceiling, who knows," Coons said, joking about the standoff between Obama and Congress over the limit on federal debt.

Franken, the comedian who was elected to the Senate from Minnesota in 2008, asked Christen what she learned from her role in state litigation over the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Christen, one of four lawyers representing the state on its liability claims against Exxon, said she learned about working within a much larger legal team.

"My job was focused on compiling the most accurate record I could of the timeline of events, 24 hours before the grounding of the tanker and 24 hours after the grounding of the tanker," Christen said.

"Leading up to that, there was some drinking involved, was there?" Franken asked.

"Not by the litigation team," Christen quipped.

The friends and family of various judicial nominees who packed the hearing room burst out laughing.

"I'll do the jokes," said Franken.

"I kind of like hers better," Hatch chimed in.

Hatch told Christen that Obama has said "judges should base their rulings on one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy."

Did she agree with that? he asked.

"I believe that judges have an obligation to rule based on the rule of law, and that's what I have done for 9 1/2 years," Christen said. "We are not allowed to tilt the scale depending on how we feel about a case, but I believe that there are life lessons that we've all learned that are very important that judges retain and take with them to the bench."

For instance, she said judges need to keep in mind that there are real people behind the cases, with lives and businesses on hold waiting for decisions.

When it came time for Gleason's turn, she was on a panel with three other judicial nominees from Wyoming, Delaware and California, all up for positions as district court judges.


Grassley, the committee's ranking Republican, targeted Gleason with a series of questions based on a report she wrote in 1985 for the Alaska Women's Commission titled "A Review of the Alaska Statutes for Sex Discrimination." She had listed the report on a questionnaire for the committee and provided copies.

"Your recommendations and findings were far ranging and, I think, controversial," Grassley said.

He read from a section of the report that said the state constitution's provisions for equal rights and privacy "present a strong argument in support of decriminalization of prostitution."

Does she support legalization of prostitution? he asked.

Gleason explained that she was hired as legal coordinator of the project back in 1985, her first year as a lawyer. She said she mainly compiled a variety of opinions from volunteer attorneys and state employees for the report.

"Frankly, sitting here today, I don't recall what portions of the report I personally authored and what were the work of volunteer attorneys," she said.

As to legalization of prostitution, she said she hadn't really thought about it, but the question "was essentially a legislative prerogative." She said she would enforce whatever the law was.

Grassley said the report also contends that veterans benefits had gone far beyond their original purpose of helping service members adjust to civilian life and should be curtailed. It said the benefits work against women since fewer women served in the military.

"No. 1, do you still hold the views that veterans benefits should be curtailed or that such benefits work to the detriment of women as a class?" Grassley asked.

"No, I do not," Gleason answered. "But I have to stress again, Sen. Grassley, that my role in that report was as a coordinator, was to synthesize the work of a number of people."

He also asked whether she thought a state could impose any restriction on abortion.

Gleason said she believed her role as a judge would be "to enforce the existing law of the land as enunciated by the United States Supreme Court," which allows abortion.

Only a few senators on the committee attended the hearing. Coons said he would hold the matter open a week before taking committee action. The full Senate also must vote on the nominations.

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