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How to read voters’ firing of a top-rated Alaska judge

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 8
  • Published November 8

The toughest choice for me on Tuesday's ballot was the firing of Superior Court Judge Michael Corey. I had long conversations with family members about whether it would be right to express outrage over the epidemic of sexual violence against Alaska Native women by taking his job away.

Corey lost his judicial retention vote and will be forced from the bench despite high job ratings, a first in Alaska history. In all other cases of judges being voted down — which were rare — the Alaska Bar Association or Alaska Judicial Council first called for the judge's removal.

Advocates for our system say the vote undermines the objectivity of Alaska's judges and even that voters used their power inappropriately. I disagree.

Rather than worry about whether voters made a mistake or should be better educated about the system, this is a moment to consider what the public wanted to say. There's evidence that voters in Southcentral Alaska are losing confidence in the court system.

Corey's rejection came after he approved a plea agreement and sentencing in September, giving air traffic controller Justin Schneider no time behind bars for a terrifying and disgusting sexual assault on an Alaska Native woman.

Defenders of the judge and the prosecutor said they acted correctly within the laws as they exist. John Skidmore, who heads state prosecutors, made a full-throated defense of his office's work.

But community activists and some lawyers found plenty of flaws. Most troubling, the prosecutor made inadequate effort to reach the victim, then blamed her unavailability as a reason for the plea. But she was easy for a reporter and advocates to reach and reportedly wanted to appear.

The judge and both attorneys involved in the decision that day were white males. Alaska has a record of failing to protect female Alaska Native victims and imprisoning Alaska Native men at far higher rates than non-Natives. There are no Alaska Native judges.

The argument of Corey's defenders came in two parts. First, that he did nothing wrong and that those unhappy with the sentence should instead change the laws. Second, that it was inappropriate for voters to fire a judge over one bad call and that doing so threatens the justice system.

The first argument simply hasn't held up. Judge Corey expressed doubt about the sentence at the time. He could have delayed the process to find the victim. He could have asked for the prosecutor and defense to present more information.

But the much worse failures were on the part of the district attorney's office. So why fire the judge, who otherwise had a sterling record and strong support from people who know him?

That's a judgment call. Advocates and experts I spoke to on both sides had serious reasoning, but voting is a binary choice, for or against.

Corey couldn't afford to lose many votes, because judges have been holding their seats by ever thinner margins in the Third Judicial District, which includes Anchorage. (For whatever reason, this downward trend hasn't happened in the rest of the state.)

In the 1980s, Third District judges routinely got retention percentages in the high 60s and 70s. That slid to the mid- to low-60s in the last decade, and into the high 50s in 2016. Tuesday, voters in the Third gave three Superior Court judges who won retention just 55 to 58 percent. Corey got 47 percent.

The decline could represent a general unhappiness about crime. It could also express dissatisfaction with the legal system's failure to correct shortcomings that have eroded public trust.

The racial disparities are only one issue. Others include the expense that denies access to courts to ordinary people and a plea bargain system that forces the innocent to plead guilty. Exonerations nationwide have shown the courts' many errors and their resistance to correcting mistakes.

The Fairbanks Four got out of prison three years ago, but they never got justice.

Vic Fischer, who helped write the Alaska Constitution, said the system worked as intended Tuesday. Alaska chooses judges according to merit, but individual Alaskans get to weigh in every few years and can cast their votes for any reason. The vote is part of the constitution's system of checks and balances.

Fischer said he voted to retain Corey. He said the judge should have paid more attention, but this was just one case of many and more blame should go to the prosecutor. But Fischer also noted the decline in retention votes and believes it shows concern about the courts.

Supporters of Corey said it is dangerous to vote against a judge for one decision, because judges should not worry about whether their rulings are popular, only if they meet the law. A retired judge I spoke to compared the vote to, "Mob rule."

But I was more persuaded by a social worker, Elizabeth Williams, who led the social media campaign against Corey's retention. She witnessed horrifying sexual abuse against Alaska Native women when she worked in Bethel and knew women who were raped and did not get justice.

She said the problems are systemic.

"I do feel bad for Michael Corey, but I think this is what needed to happen for them to quake in their boots, and for all of them to feel they need to do better," Williams said.

I don't think judges will avoid unpopular decisions because of what happened to Corey, and the judicial experts I spoke to agreed. That would be dishonorable. I hope instead the vote has a deterrent effect, like a harsh sentence for a drunk driver, that causes us all to be more careful.

Williams said the voters used their right as intended by the constitution. If retention votes were intended only to ratify the verdict of the Alaska Judicial Council, then there would be no reason to have them.

Besides, using this power once in 59 years is not a crisis.

"It is just crazy to me that people are labeling us as a mob," Williams said. "We voted. That's all we did."

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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