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Cast an informed vote for Alaska’s judges

  • Author: Fred Torrisi
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 6, 2020
  • Published October 6, 2020

Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Bill Roth / ADN)

I practiced law in Dillingham for 20 years, and some of my clients occasionally asked me how they should vote on the judicial retention elections. One year, I ran into a woman after the election, and she said she’d forgotten to ask, so she’d just voted no on all the men judges and yes on the women. I laughed — not the worst strategy, but did she know that the judge who had granted her custody of her child had been on the ballot? Oh no, she worried, did he win?

He had, as most judges do, because he was a good judge. After working as a lawyer for many years, I worked as a trial judge for almost as long, and I’d like to offer my opinion about what I think matters most, and why you should at least read the Judicial Council’s report on a judge before voting no.

First, honesty and integrity. The Alaska Judicial Council screens all applicants for our judgeships, in an extensive public process, and recommends two or more to the governor for selection. When a judge is up for retention, an election in which the public votes whether to keep the judge or not, the Council again surveys those who have had cases with the judge, lawyers, probation and police officers, jurors and others, and it publishes a report in advance of the election. Look carefully at the ratings (see for integrity and impartiality. If these ratings are high, it means that your case will be decided on its merits, and not for any other reason.

We also want judges who work hard. The Judicial Council calls this diligence. As a lawyer, my cases were heard by traveling judges who would only come to town every couple of months, and every day they spent listening to our problems meant another day away from their families and their other work. Some cases are complicated legally, many are difficult to follow factually, but all are important and all require the judge to listen carefully and give each litigant his or her opportunity to be heard before a decision is made.

Some judges, often appellate justices, are targeted for a particular decision when they come up for retention. The thing is, however, most judges are to some extent nerds, and the best enjoy figuring out how to fairly apply the Constitution, statutes and precedent to cases that come before them. This is what we mean by the rule of law, and an appreciation for the process was no doubt one of the pillars for the friendship between the late Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often disagreed on the law itself. But if a judge gets good marks for impartiality and legal ability, that means that those who work with her think she’s smart, and trying to decide all cases on the facts and the law.

When I was a judge, I worked mostly in Bristol Bay and the Aleutians, which are in the Third Judicial District, a huge swath of Alaska. There are 17 judges on the ballot this year in the Third District. Two are statewide appellate justices, and the rest are from Anchorage, Palmer, Kenai and Dillingham. The first time I was on the ballot for retention, 49,230 Alaskans voted no. I think it’s fair to say that most of these people had never heard of me, and some likely voted no on all the judges on the ballot. Fortunately for me, there were more “yes” votes both times I was up for retention, so I continued to serve, hopefully improving over the years. But voting no on all judges seems cynical, and not a good way to end up with the best judges. I urge you to read and consider the recommendation of the Judicial Council before voting not to retain an Alaska judge. The Alaska Constitution set up a good process for selecting and evaluating judges, and it’s working well. Let’s use it.

Fred Torrisi served as a Superior Court judge in Dillingham from 1997-2012 and a pro temps judge until 2014. He is now retired and lives in Anchorage.

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