The first, and currently the only, woman justice serving on the Alaska Supreme Court is retiring, and Gov. Bill Walker is poised to appoint a new justice to fill this vacancy. The governor has been provided with the four most qualified applicants in the field for his selection. And two of the candidates — fully half of this talented field — are women. From my vantage point as a retired judge, and one of the earliest women to be appointed to the District Court (by Gov. Jay Hammond) and to the Superior Court (by Gov. Walter Hickel), it is critical that Walker appoint a woman to the court to achieve the goal of fairness and equality in our justice system.
All but two states in our nation have at least one woman on their highest court and most have two or three women justices. And this is not surprising, because for many years now, about half of all law school graduates have been women. If a woman is not appointed to fill this vacancy, the clock will have turned back more than 20 years. How can Alaskans have confidence in the fairness of our justice system if women are deprived of participating in decisions on some of the most important legal questions that affect us all?
As former federal Chief Judge Patricia Wald once observed, women judges must be included on the bench "if the legal system is to tap the whole reservoir of human experience that ought to underlie any humane and compassionate and fair system of laws." More than 20 years ago when I spoke at the installation of Alaska's first woman on our Supreme Court, I similarly remarked that inclusion of a woman on our state's highest court provides "something closer to full spectrum light."
There has been discussion during this selection process that there's also a need for geographic diversity on the court, mainly inclusion of a justice from Southeast Alaska. Unfortunately, meeting this need would eliminate the appointment of a woman as neither of the highly qualified women nominees live in that region. In weighing the competing considerations, I believe the balance must be struck in favor of appointing a woman. Issues where geographical diversity is important come before the court, but only occasionally. (And the current court is not geographically homogeneous -- one justice lives in Fairbanks and another lived in Kodiak and Valdez for years.)
However, issues that touch the lives of all Alaskans, men or women, urban or rural residents, children or elders make up the vast majority of the Supreme Court's docket. Not having a woman at the table to participate in shaping these important decisions erodes public confidence in the justice system.
Appointing a woman is more than just a matter of enhancing public confidence in the courts: It is also a matter that is intimately connected to the quality of the decision-making. In the competitive corporate world, companies are working hard to attract talented executives with a greater variety of life experiences and backgrounds. They are doing this, not out a sense of political correctness, but because they believe that a more diverse decision-making team at the top prevents the team from falling into "group think" and therefore results in better, more thoughtful decisions.
It is heartening that Gov. Walker's first two judicial appointments to the trial court have demonstrated his commitment to creating a bench that is fully reflective of our community. But the upcoming Alaska Supreme Court appointment will send the most important message of all: that our state is one where there is justice for all and that women should be equal participants in reaching that goal.
Senior Judge Elaine Andrews served as a trial judge for over 20 years in Anchorage. Prior to assuming the bench in 1981, she was an attorney practicing criminal and civil law in the public and private sector. She is director of the Appellate Mediation Project for the Alaska Supreme Court and chair of the Alaska Bar Association's committee for fair and impartial courts. These opinions are her own and do not represent the court or the bar association.
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