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Alaska’s Supreme Court needs more diversity

  • Author: Guy Adams
    | Opinion
    , Andy Baker
    | Opinion
    , Toby Drake
    | Opinion
    , Cathy Giessel
    | Opinion
    , John Lincoln
    | Opinion
    , Lyman Hoffman
    | Opinion
    , Donald Olson
    | Opinion
    , Sandy Shroyer-Beaver
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 13
  • Published May 13

Assistant Attorney General Laura Fox argues the state's position on the disputed Democratic primary election before the Alaska Supreme Court on Oct. 12, 2016. (Bill Roth / ADN archive 2016)

The Alaska Judicial Council will meet the third week of May to select nominees for an Alaska Supreme Court seat now occupied by Justice Craig Stowers. Justice Stowers, who has served with distinction since 2009, will be retiring this summer.

The Judicial Council should use this opportunity to help correct a disturbing lack of diversity on our current Supreme Court. Although Gov. Mike Dunleavy will make the ultimate decision, his choices are limited by the state constitution to only those nominees chosen by the Judicial Council. Thus, if the Judicial Council fails to provide the governor with a diverse panel of nominees, he can’t fairly be blamed if his appointments further solidify Alaska’s homogenous judiciary.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that our court system doesn’t look like Alaska or Alaskans. This shortcoming is most acutely seen on the Supreme Court. Nearly half of all Alaskans (about 47%) live in some community other than Anchorage and Fairbanks. Yet 100% of the current members of the Supreme Court are from Anchorage and Fairbanks. More than one-third of all Alaskans belong to an ethnic minority. On the Supreme Court, the percentage is zero.

Nobody is suggesting that judicial positions should be allocated based on a quota system. But it’s naive to think there are no consequences for having a court system that is composed of people who are so profoundly different from the Alaska public they serve. This reality was acknowledged in a report from the Supreme Court’s “Advisory Committee on Fairness and Access.”

While the committee stated they heard “almost no complaints of intentional racial or cultural bias,” they did discover “…unintentional bias, cultural misunderstandings, inadequate services, lack of accessibility, and troubling disparities in a number of important areas.”

At a 2016 public forum sponsored by several legal groups, the Executive Director of the Alaska Judicial Council, Susanne DiPietro, pointed out “The Council only gets to choose from members of the Alaska Bar.” She went on to report that member statistics for the Alaska Bar Association show that “about 5% of the Bar identify as non-Caucasian.” In other words, the Alaska Bar Association membership is 95% white.

The court system is self-conscious about all this. Thus, we see them sponsoring programs such as the annual “Justice for All” art contest, in which students are asked to submit art entries addressing this theme: “Fairness, Diversity, Equality: Our Justice System Depends on Them; What Do They Mean to You?” Then there is the “Color of Justice” program, which “encourages women and youth of color to consider possible careers as lawyers and judges.”

These are well-intentioned programs, and we hope they bear fruit in the future. But right now, we need more than art contests and lip service. The Alaska Judicial Council can act immediately to give Gov. Dunleavy the broadest and most diverse selection of qualified applicants to fill this seat on Alaska’s most powerful court.

Eight attorneys have applied for the current opening on the Supreme Court. On the plus side, all of them have impressive qualifications and there is at least gender diversity (five of eight applicants are women). But in other respects, we see the same old patterns. There is little ethnic diversity and the field is overwhelmingly urban, with 6 of the 8 applicants coming from Anchorage.

A notable exception is Judge Paul Roetman, the only applicant from rural Alaska. Judge Roetman has served for a decade as the Superior Court Judge for Kotzebue and 11 surrounding villages. He also serves as the Presiding Judge for the Second Judicial District, which covers a huge swath of Arctic and western Alaska, from Utqiagvik (Barrow) to Unalakleet.

Judge Roetman, who is Mexican-American, has lived in Alaska for more than 47 years, far longer than any of the other Supreme Court applicants. He has an amazingly diverse background, having worked as a commercial fisherman, a manager for a regional economic development group and also as a state prosecutor. Judge Roetman is respected in his community. During his last retention election in 2014, more than 71% of voters chose to retain him as a judge, the third-best performance among 14 judges on the ballot that year.

These positive comments about Judge Roetman should not be seen as disparaging any of the other fine applicants for this vacancy. In fact, the people of Alaska would be well-served if all eight applicants were nominated and sent to the governor for his review. Unfortunately, the Judicial Council has a track record of passing over applicants who are very much qualified and sending the governor a radically shortened list of names, sometimes just the bare legal minimum of two. We hope that does not occur this time.

Judge Paul Roetman, with 10 years of service on the Superior Court, has the greatest amount of judicial experience among the eight applicants. If the Alaska Judicial Council fails to nominate a rural Alaska judge who has more experience than his urban counterparts, we may reluctantly conclude that all the talk about promoting “fairness, diversity, and equality” is just that — talk.

Guy Adams is the Executive Director of the Northwest Inupiat Housing Authority. Andy Baker is a businessman; he lives in Kotzebue. Toby Drake is the owner of Drake Construction in Kotzebue. Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, is President of the Alaska Senate. Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, is a member of the Alaska House of Representatives. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, is the Alaska Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Donald Olson, D-Golovin, serves in the Alaska Senate. Sandy Shroyer-Beaver, of Kotzebue, serves on the Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly.

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