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Postma settles Alaska judicial lawsuit

Patti Epler

Former Anchorage District Court Judge Richard Postma has decided to drop lawsuits against the state court system and others over his ouster by voters in the Nov. 2 election.

Postma contended the non-retention vote was directly related to discrimination and retaliation by court administrators and staff of the Alaska Judicial Council and Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct, which accused him of violating ethics and conduct rules.

Postma's decision to abandon his legal challenges came as part of the conduct commission's case against him. A hearing in the case began Wednesday but Postma and the commission agreed to settle the matter. The settlement finds, in part, that "Postma's mental health difficulties incapacitated his ability to function appropriately as a judicial officer within the workplace with colleagues, peers and staff and seriously interfered with the performance of his duties."

"I couldn't win and I could only lose even more," Postma said in an interview Thursday morning. "Basically, I'm out of my job. If I win I'm still out of my job."

Postma, who was appointed to the bench in 2007, had complained to court administrators that he was being discriminated against in the way staff was being assigned to him and that after he complained officials retaliated against him. In 2009 he experienced severe anxiety attacks -- something both sides agree on -- and was put on leave. He also was required to undergo psychiatric evaluations and it was eventually determined he suffered from mental health issues.

Under the agreement reached between Postma and the judicial conduct commission -- which still needs approval of the state Supreme Court -- he will withdraw a lawsuit he'd filed last month in federal court against the commission, the judicial council, the court system and specific staffers. He will also withdraw as an intervener in a lawsuit in state court that was filed by voters who supported him and are seeking to have the election results overturned.

Postma also will be publicly censured by the commission and has promised not to seek or hold a position as a judicial officer in the future, according to the agreement.

Postma said he changed his mind about vigorously pursuing the legal action against the court system in part because he was afraid officials might try to take away his license to practice law. He said he is disillusioned with the judicial system and finds it ironic that as a lawyer he was helpless to help himself in a legal matter.

"I learned you can't fight the court system from the inside," he said. "I couldn't win and I could only lose more."

He pointed out that the settlement recognizes he was discriminated against in some instances, but that the commission was more concerned about how he conducted himself, not the discrimination itself.

"At some point you have to stop the bleeding," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do, just try to pay my bills and feed my family."

Postma does not have retirement through the court system because he wasn't on the bench for at least five years and wasn't vested in the judicial retirement plan.

Marla Greenstein of the judicial commission said the settlement validates the commission's views on Postma's conduct and that it gets the same result without having to go through a lengthy hearing process. The settlement also resolves the lawsuits filed by Postma, which had not been part of the case against him before the commission.

She said the issue of his law license only came up in a deposition in which she suggested his fitness to practice law might be an issue if the case ever went to the Supreme Court. This was the first case involving mental disability of a judge the commission had dealt with and she didn't know what the Supreme Court might do, she said.

Larry Cohn, executive director of the judicial council, declined to comment on the settlement because the lawsuit in state court is still pending.

That case was filed by Postma's supporters before the election and sought to block the retention vote. When that didn't work, they asked that the election not be certified.

Stephanie Patel, the attorney representing the group, said Thursday she hadn't seen the settlement agreement and hadn't had a chance to consult with her clients on whether to keep the case going.

"My suspicion is we will continue because the voters do have an interest," she said.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com