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How connections trumped qualifications to be Alaska’s new federal judge

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 24
  • Published April 24

Jon Katchen's connections rather than qualifications seem to have won his nomination be a federal Alaska District Court judge.

Katchen may turn out to be a good judge. I think he probably will. But at 42, his limited record doesn't establish he is the best candidate.

Alaska's U.S. senators over the last 15 years have used a merit process to pick judges. This time they did not. Katchen was rated near the bottom of a poll of lawyers. And the senators have kept details of that poll secret.

Katchen has connections to President Trump's family, he worked as a special assistant to Sen. Dan Sullivan in state government, and he is married to Sarah Rabinowitz, whose father, Jay, was an Alaska legal giant, with the courthouse in Fairbanks named for him.

In fact, I have many connections with Katchen, too. We're both well connected.

We met when he emailed to disagree with my columns on oil taxes. He defended Gov. Sean Parnell's SB 21 tax, which he worked on. I invited him to coffee and we hit it off. He's likeable and seemed open to different points of view.

But local lawyers are grumbling about the appointment. Federal judges have immense power and serve for life. They can be removed only by congressional impeachment.

"We should be taking the very best we have, and he may be decent, he may be very good, but he's not the best we have," said retired Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews, who was the presiding judge of the Anchorage courts.

"They should be selected on merit, and not ideology or political affiliation. That history has served the Alaska state court well and has served to guide the selection of federal nominees," Andrews said.

I spoke to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, former Sen. Mark Begich, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, although Sullivan would not make comments on the record because the nomination is before the senate. Katchen said the White House told him not to comment.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the president nominates judges and the Senate confirms, but in practice the White House accepts names from the senators of each state who are members of the president's party.

Murkowski said that Alaska's senators have asked the Alaska Bar Association to poll its members on federal judicial applicants since she took office in 2002. Sen. Ted Stevens was reluctant to do the poll, she said.

The process mirrors the merit selection for state judges called for in the Alaska Constitution, in which surveys and research by the Alaska Judicial Council produce nominees from whom the governor may select.

U.S. Senators can send any names they please to the president. In most states selection is entirely political. The White House usually picks from among the names.

The American Bar Association rates candidates as qualified or unqualified before their confirmation vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, a process Katchen hasn't yet faced.

Senators picked highly rated candidates for the Alaska District Court appointments of Tim Burgess in 2005, and Sharon Gleason in 2011, and Morgan Christen for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011. Their qualifications were superb.

Begich and Murkowski said they agreed on Gleason and Christen and submitted those names as first choices with only one or two others.

But in Katchen's case, the senators submitted five names, an unusually large number. Begich suggested that might have happened if Murkowski and Sullivan disagreed on who to send forward.

Murkowski essentially confirmed that theory with a diplomatic remark.

"We put forth a longer list in an effort to align our priorities," she said.

Katchen ranked 13th out of 20 applicants on the bar association poll, with the bottom five getting almost no support. Just 31 percent rated him "extremely qualified" or "well qualified," compared to 66 percent who gave those ratings to the top applicant, Eric Aarseth, a highly rated state judge since 2005.

The bar did not release scores below "well qualified," nor the comments of raters, nor the number of people who voted on each person, which Andrews said made the poll difficult to analyze. It's unclear how many negative votes the candidates received or how many attorneys knew them.

That information was withheld at the request of the senators' offices, said Deborah O'Regan, executive director of the Alaska Bar Association. The senators' offices did not respond to my inquiry about why they kept the information secret.

How did Katchen jump the list?

Katchen grew up in one of the most affluent communities in the country, in Gladstone, New Jersey, the son of an attorney, and attended excellent private schools.

Katchen worked in Alaska as a Jesuit volunteer before his first legal job here, on a summer internship during law school at the University of California. Two law school summer jobs and a clerkship are the extent of his criminal law experience.

The clerk job came after graduating in 2004, when he worked for a year for President Trump's sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, a well-respected judge on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, in New Jersey.

In 2006, Larry Ostrosky hired Katchen to work in the Oil, Gas and Mining section of the Alaska Attorney General's Office.

"I hired him because I thought Jon was really smart," Ostrosky said. "He met and exceeded our expectations. I think he's a great lawyer."

In that job, Katchen came to the attention of Sullivan, who was in his own résumé-building period as Attorney General and Commissioner of Natural Resources. He made Katchen his special assistant.

In 2012, Katchen went into private practice specializing in natural resource law.

Hiring according to merit can be tough. The senators themselves got their jobs through connections.

Murkowski was appointed by her father. Sullivan comes from a wealthy Ohio family and had senior jobs in Washington before coming to Alaska.

Most likely, Sullivan knew Katchen and his work, liked him, was impressed with his abilities, and thought he would make a good judge based on that personal knowledge.

That's how it usually works. You pick people like yourself. It's a big reason why we have one social class, race and gender running most things.

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

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