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Alaska's judiciary and leadership lack Alaska's diversity

When Pamela Washington became a lawyer intern with the Alaska Public Defender Agency, they gave her the usual intern job of handling all the bail hearings, the person they called "the bail slave." She even heard someone call her that when she first walked into the office, before they saw her brown African American face.

Washington rolled with it, and today she is a District Court judge. But she said Alaska's justice system still has so few minorities that she seems to be a surprise or oddity -- or, to black defendants, an unexpected relief.

In Alaska's court system, with 73 judges in the District Court to Supreme Court levels, only two are African American -- Washington and Superior Court Judge Herman Walker. Two judges are Hispanic and one is Asian.

Alaska Natives are 15 percent of the Alaska population and 32 percent of the prison population, but Alaska doesn't have a single Native judge.

I got interested in this topic because Dana Fabe, the only woman on the all-white Alaska Supreme Court, is retiring June 1. The gender balance among Alaska judges is also out of whack, with only 18 women out of 73 judges. The numbers are better for women and minorities among magistrates, who don't have to be lawyers and many of whom work in smaller communities.

The Alaska Judicial Council will interview potential replacements for Fabe next week. The highest-rated candidate in a survey of attorneys in Alaska's merit-based judge selection system was Fairbanks indigent defense attorney Susan Carney. Paul Roetman, whose parents are Mexican-American, and who serves as Superior Court judge in Kotzebue, was rated sixth out of eight applicants.

From among the eight, the council will offer two or more nominations for Gov. Bill Walker's appointment. The council holds a public hearing on the applicants Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. in the Supreme Court in the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage. Wednesday, some candidate interviews may be public, but people who want to attend interviews should contact the council in advance. The council votes Wednesday as well.

I asked Judge Washington if the overrepresentation of minorities in prison has happened partly because of bias in the criminal justice system. She gave me a look that made me stammer. I said, "Oh, yeah, Ferguson."

Washington said judicial diversity matters in many ways. Diversity creates more confidence in justice. And it puts people with life experience similar to that of the public in the position of judging their misdeeds and dividing their families in divorce.

We live different lives and come from different cultures. That's good, but it means our words and actions have different meanings. We have different ways of sending messages. Speaking as a white man, I know there are lots of things I don't get.

"You use your life experience, and there are things that people never even thought about," Washington said.

For example, she is the child of a divorced family and has been through divorce herself. Her application to become a judge shows she filed for a domestic violence restraining order against an ex-boyfriend when she was much younger. I'd say that experience prepares her to sit in judgment on domestic issues in a multiracial community better than many white male judges.

The court system has worked hard to hire more minority judges. Statistically, minorities have done well in the selection process. But few have applied. They come from a pool of Alaska lawyers that is 94 percent white. Only 2 percent of Alaska lawyers are Native and less than 1 percent African American.

Washington was appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2010.

"I haven't broken any barriers," Washington said. "I walked through barriers that others broke for me. I'm the fruit of other people's labor."

But her life story suggests why Alaska has so few minority lawyers and judges. Coming to Alaska with her family from New Orleans, she wanted to be a truck driver, like her father. She was the only minority member of her 1980 graduating class at Chugiak High School. That wasn't unusual at the time -- a reminder of how quickly Anchorage has become diverse.

Only after college, when a work supervisor told her about the value of a legal education, did she consider going back to school for a law degree.

Now Washington is involved in various community programs to give minority students the understanding she didn't have, that they can be lawyers and judges. The court's Color of Justice program provides that encouragement, including in a recent session that brought 40 mostly Native students from around the state, which was funded by the 12 Alaska Native regional corporations.

"I go to young people and say, 'You can do this,' " Washington said. But when she spoke to a school in an affluent neighborhood, she found the kids needed no such encouragement. "The kids knew exactly what they were going to do. Their dads were CEOs."

Several Alaska Native lawyers I spoke to pointed out that they have excellent opportunities in the corporate world or working on Native issues outside of the judiciary. But experience in corporate law doesn't necessarily translate into becoming a judge, which requires courtroom time.

The lack of diversity on Alaska's bench is a problem, but the court system and legal profession know that and are working hard for a solution.

But for low numbers of women, choices by governors are one cause. According to Judicial Council records covering the last four administrations, the council found qualified women for most judge vacancies, and governors Parnell and Walker appointed women judges about half the time they received qualified female nominees. But Gov. Frank Murkowski did so only 16 percent of the time and Gov. Sarah Palin 25 percent of the time. Out of 35 opportunities, those two governors appointed only seven women.

In Anchorage, with our vaunted diversity, we have two African Americans and two Alaska Natives representing us in the 34 offices we elect in state and local government. That's a little better than the court system, but not much.

The problem reaches to other professions too. Half of Alaska's public school students are minorities, but 90 percent of their teachers are white. Years of efforts to increase numbers of Alaska Native teachers have had little impact.

We Alaskans need to stop congratulating ourselves on our peaceful race relations and start working on creating a truly integrated society.

As Judge Washington said, "I think it is going to require deliberate action. People can't just wait and see."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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