Judicial commission recommends suspension for Palmer judge over pay claims

Devin Kelly

The Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct has recommended a Palmer District Court judge be disciplined for improperly signing legal documents.

In filings with the Alaska Supreme Court, the commission recommended a 45-day suspension without pay for William Estelle, who has served as a District Court judge since 2003. In two cases, Estelle violated judicial conduct by signing affidavits claiming payment for cases that he had not decided in a timely manner, the filing said.

Judges are legally required to decide or complete cases within six months or their pay will be delayed until they are up to date. Twice a month, judges sign pay affidavits, a sworn document that states that "no matter currently referred to me for opinion or decision has been uncompleted or undecided by me for a period of more than six months."

"It's a fairly serious legal document," said Marla Greenstein, the commission's executive director.

According to the commission, Estelle took more than six months to decide three cases between 2011 and 2013: Wasilla Airport Condominium Assoc. v. Twohy, Doroshchuk v. AAA Alaska Insurance Company, and Miles v. Kaatz.

In two of those cases, Estelle signed pay affidavits despite, according to the commission's findings, being aware of the six-month rule -- a "matter of common knowledge among attorneys and judges," according to the Supreme Court filing.

Estelle reported the situation to the commission himself, the filing said.

In 2004, the commission informally admonished Estelle for the untimely filing of his first Alaska Public Offices Commission report. The Alaska Public Offices Commission fined him for that incident, and again in March for a similar untimely filing in 2013.

In the recommendation, the judicial commission said Estelle has "excellent character and an excellent reputation in certain respects."

"He is precise and thorough in his work and has a good legal mind, but he does not have a good reputation as an administrator," the filing said.

The commission also said Estelle was "remorseful" for his actions and has since taken steps to improve his paperwork habits, such as requiring weekly reports of his cases to be sent by email and involving his judicial assistant more closely in case management.

It's rare for a judge to be recommended for discipline by the commission. In 2011, the commission recommended the removal of a district court judge in Bethel, Dennis Cummings, over improper communications. Cummings retired before the Supreme Court received the case, but the court ultimately agreed with the commission's recommendation.

The commission first filed the complaint about the pay affidavits against Estelle in August 2013 and held a formal disciplinary hearing in mid-April.

The Supreme Court staff is now making a transcript of the April hearing. Estelle has 30 days after the transcript is completed to file a response to the commission's recommendation.

A message to Estelle was not immediately returned.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.