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Anchorage judge targeted in retention battle speaks publicly for first time since controversial plea agreement

Speaking publicly for the first time since he approved a controversial plea agreement that outraged many Alaskans, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey said Tuesday he will stand for retention in the face of a heated campaign to unseat him.

Corey has been in the spotlight since late September, when he signed off on a plea agreement crafted by prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case of Justin Schneider, an Eagle River man who choked an Alaska Native woman unconscious and masturbated on her.

The agreement did not include any jail time for Schneider, who had spent a year on house arrest.

The case's resolution — and comments made by the prosecutor during the hearing that the defendant was getting "one pass" — kindled fury in Alaska and beyond.

In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Corey said he said he could only speak generally because he is barred by ethical rules from discussing anything about the Schneider case.

But he said he is "very aware" of the uproar and wants the public to understand that a judge's primary job is to uphold the law — even if they don't like the result.

"Judges are obligated to follow the law, even when their own preferences diverge," Corey said.

Corey now faces active opposition to his retention as a Superior Court judge.

The organizers of the "No More Passes: Vote No on Judge Corey" campaign filed paperwork with the Alaska Public Offices Commission to register their campaign Sept. 27.

If the group trying to unseat Corey is successful, he would become the first judge in Alaska state history to be unseated solely by a popular uprising.

'They have felt let down … for far too long' 

Elizabeth Williams, the Anchorage social worker who started the Vote No on Corey campaign, said anger over the Schneider deal has been channeled into support for voting Corey off the bench.

The Vote No on Corey campaign she started as a Facebook group has now raised $4,000 in two days of fundraising, Williams said. She expects a "No More Passes" rally Saturday in front of the Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage to draw hundreds of protesters. The Facebook page has grown to 3,500 followers.

In the past week she's heard from people all over the country, she said.

"The most striking messages I've gotten have been from Alaska Native women in both the villages and cities telling me thank you for starting this movement," Williams said.

Some have written about being strangled or sexually abused and why they didn't report the crime.

"They have felt let down by the justice system for far too long," Williams said.

No one has yet organized on behalf of Corey, a relatively new Anchorage judge with a background in private practice and business law.

With an active campaign trying to unseat him in November's election, Corey said he is weighing how he will respond.

He's permitted under the ethics rules to explain procedures of the court, and said he hopes to educate the public about how plea agreements work and impart another message: Judges don't write the laws.

"Judges have to follow the law as they see it without fear of social retribution," Corey said in an interview Tuesday evening.

'A dangerous precedent' 

A faction of supporters have argued that Corey made the only decision he could under the law.

They say removing a judge for an unpopular decision would set a dangerous precedent.

Corey was closely constrained by the law in approving the plea agreement entirely negotiated by prosecutor and defense attorney, said Anchorage defense attorney James Christie.

To kick him off the bench would send a "chilling message," he said.

"Once you politicize a judge's decision, they are no longer contemplating the facts before them, instead they are worried about television cameras and how their decisions will look in the news," Christie said. "They are bound to follow the law even when the law produces unpopular results."

Past campaigns

Alaska judges are appointed. But they face elections where voters can choose to retain them or not. The Alaska Judicial Council evaluates the performance of judges and makes recommendations to the public about judge retention.

Organized political groups have campaigned against Alaska judges in the recent past.

In 2010, social conservatives led by Jim Minnery's Alaska Family Action targeted now-retired Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe with a campaign attacking her rulings on abortion and gay marriage. Earlier, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sen Tan faced a similar campaign.

Both judges were retained by wide margins.

The last judge to lose an election and his job was Judge Richard Postma, in 2010.

In the past, judges voted off the bench have almost always been the subject of "do not retain" recommendation by the Alaska Judicial Council.

Corey received generally high marks in surveys by the Alaska Judicial Council.

The council made a recommendation to retain Corey — and all the other judges who will be on the November ballot — early in the summer, said Susanne DiPietro, the executive director of the council.

Voters in Alaska have a wealth of information on which to base decisions on judge retention, said Elaine Andrews, a retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge who volunteers educating the public about Alaska's judicial retention process.

The judicial council surveys are extensive, she said. Voters unhappy with a decision could also try to learn how a judge used their discretion to rule — and what elements of a case they had no discretion over, Andrews said.

With the retention vote a little over a month away, Corey said he hadn't decided in what ways he'd try to get his message out to the public.

"This is new territory for me," he said.

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