Anchorage chief judge targeted by social conservatives in Tuesday's election

Lisa Demer

Social conservatives are trying to knock out a prominent, long-time Anchorage judge in Tuesday's general election, and the state's nonpartisan judicial council is fighting back.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sen K. Tan is one of 26 Alaska judges on the ballot, and he's the only one being targeted by the conservative Alaska Family Action. The group wants him out because of two decisions related to abortion, and its members also take issue with the role of the Alaska Judicial Council in the campaign, said Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action.

"It's pretty simple. It's two rulings, on public funding for abortion and then overruling parental consent," Minnery said. "He's the only one we are going after. He's the only one who has made any impact that broadly."

The attack on Tan is happening just days before the election.

"Frankly, it's appalling what they are doing," said Larry Cohn, executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council. Politics are supposed to be removed from the process, he said.

The state-funded council was established in the state Constitution. It is run by a seven-member non- partisan panel that screens and nominates candidates for judgeships, evaluates the performance of judges and studies the judicial system. Three attorneys, three public members and the Supreme Court chief justice sit on the panel.

Tan is currently the presiding judge over the Third Judicial District, which besides Anchorage includes the Kenai Peninsula, the Mat-Su Borough, Dillingham, Valdez and Cordova.

Judges in Alaska are appointed but must face the voters periodically in an up-or-down vote. Usually there's little controversy.

Tan was appointed to the bench in 1996 by then-Gov. Tony Knowles. Voters twice before agreed to keep him on the bench, including in 2000 when he also was targeted by social conservatives.

He is one of the state's top-rated judges, according to surveys by the Alaska Judicial Council. Social workers and child advocates rated him a perfect 5.0 overall, which is rare, Cohn said. Attorneys rate him 4.5, court employees, 4.7, and police and probation officers, 4.0.

The council voted unanimously to support his retention, Cohn said. Among the three public members is Kathleen Tompkins-Miller, whose husband is 2010 Republican U.S. Senate candidate and tea party favorite Joe Miller.

Social conservatives still have him in their sights.

In 2003, Tan struck down for the second time a 1997 law that said girls had to get their parents' consent before an abortion. In 1999, he threw out a law passed the year before aimed at ending state funding for abortions sought by low-income women. The Alaska Supreme Court upheld his decisions.

Minnery has been sending out emails urging people to vote against Tan, and his group bought a big anti-Tan banner that it draped around a motor home being driven around the Kenai, the Mat-Su and Anchorage, Minnery said.

The judicial council is fighting back, with pro-Tan advertisements in newspapers in Anchorage, on the Kenai and in the Mat-Su, Cohn said.

"Now, an outstanding Alaska judge is being unfairly targeted -- in a last-minute attack timed to deny him an opportunity to respond," one of the ads says.

Minnery acknowledged that his group's strategy was to go after Tan at the last minute, but he said the conservatives have every right to go after a competent judge whose philosophy they oppose.

He contends it's unfair for public money to be used to support one side of a contested issue. He registered his concern to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who said he asked the Department of Law to identify the proper channel for a complaint. An assistant attorney general responded to Treadwell's office with the sections of Alaska law that govern the retention process for judges.

"If they have further questions I think you should refer them to the Alaska Judicial Council," Libby Bakalar, an assistant attorney general, wrote in an e-mail to the lieutenant governor.

The council receives an appropriation from the Legislature specifically to advertise its recommendations on judges, and has defended judges under attack before, Cohn said.

Its advertising was challenged in a 2010 lawsuit, and Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan ruled in the judicial council's favor, Cohn said. The Alaska Public Offices Commission also sided with the council in a complaint challenging its right to advertise in the 2010 election.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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