An Anchorage judge voted off the bench last month is suing the court system, the Alaska Judicial Council and various council and court employees for discrimination and retaliation.
In an unusual airing of personnel problems within the usually cloistered judicial world, former District Court Judge Richard Postma has been in a very public dispute with the judicial council since earlier this summer when it was determined he suffered from mental health issues that made him unfit to be a judge.
Postma has been accused of violating judicial ethics and conduct rules by the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is holding a public hearing on the case next week.
In October, Postma supporters filed suit in Anchorage Superior Court seeking to stop the Nov. 2 retention vote on him and, when that didn't work, to have the certification of the results stopped. A state judge ruled against him on that request as well.
A week after the election, Postma escalated the dispute to federal court where he is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, both actual and punitive, for the way he believes he was treated by court officials and then the judicial council and conduct commission.
Larry Cohn, executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council, which reviews qualifications for potential judges and those up for retention, says he remembers only one other time a judge has sued the state over an employment issue. That was in the 1980s, Cohn says, when Homer District Court Judge James Hornaday sued over a decision transferring him to Anchorage. Hornaday had said he would impose harsh sentences on drunken drivers and was being routinely pre-empted by attorneys.
Postma's federal lawsuit is the first against the judicial council and is apparently unprecedented in seeking damages related to being ousted by voters, a rare action because voters routinely agree to retain judges once they are in office. The last vote for non-retention was Kenai District Court Judge David Landry in 2006.
Prior to that a judge hasn't been "let go" by voters since the early 1980s.
Postma, who was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Sarah Palin, ran afoul of the court system not too long after taking office in August 2007, according to his federal lawsuit, press reports and an editorial page column written prior to the Nov. 2 vote.
Both Postma and the judicial council ran numerous ads before the election and Postma has posted many of the lengthy motions in the case on his campaign website.
Postma, who has said his mother is Chilean, contends he was discriminated against because certain in-court clerks who were Hispanic and African-American were banned from being assigned to him. When he complained to court administrators, he said, his work performance was criticized, his caseload reduced and family leave was abruptly cancelled.
Postma is father to three young children.
As the troubles escalated, a court official filed a judicial temperament complaint against him with the judicial conduct commission in retaliation for his raising the issues, he says in his lawsuit, adding that an investigation into his situation by court officials was unfair and his rights were violated in part because people talked about it openly.
In September 2009, Postma says he experienced severe anxiety attacks over the whole thing. About that time, court officials relieved him of his duties and required him to undergo psychological evaluations and he was diagnosed with extreme anxiety, according to his federal complaint.
In April, the judicial conduct commission charged Postma with violating the code of conduct and he was placed on paid leave. A public hearing in the case has been set for Dec. 15 in courtroom 4 of the District Court building on Seventh Avenue downtown. Commission staff expects it to go on for several days.
Cohn, who won't comment in detail on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation, would only say: "He's made a lot of allegations that are not true."
In an op-ed piece published in the Anchorage Daily News in October, Cohn explained the judicial council's decision to recommend against Postma's retention and that it was based on a review of hundreds of documents, e-mails and interviews including a long interview with Postma himself.
Cohn described a judge who came across as paranoid about how he was being treated and claimed racism.
Then, when court officials began looking into his allegations, he fired off angry e-mails and made inappropriate comments to other judges and staff, many of them sent in the middle of the night, Cohn said in the op-ed.
At one point, court administrators disabled his security access to the Anchorage courthouse, Cohn wrote.
The court sent him out to Palmer for several months hoping a lighter caseload would help and that he could eventually return to Anchorage, Cohn wrote in the column, but he was determined to be suffering from possibly permanent mental health difficulties and placed on paid leave.
"Recently, the judge posted a picture on the Internet of himself interacting with monkeys," Cohn wrote. "The caption reads, ' Photographic proof that I get along just fine with the staff of the District Court Calendaring office.'"
No hearings have been set in the federal court case and defendants, including the judicial council, the judicial conduct commission, the court system and eight judges and staff members have not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the judicial council is actively seeking candidates to fill the vacant judgeship. Applications are due Jan. 6.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com