We shouldn’t be surprised that, in an era where nearly everything has become politicized, the retention of Alaska’s judges has too. As a branch of state government, there has always been some small degree of politics in the judiciary — judges are initially appointed by the governor, after all, who is more likely to nominate like-minded candidates to the bench. But compared to the Legislature and governor, the judicial branch is an oasis away from rank partisanship, which is just how Alaska’s constitutional framers planned it. Lately, however, the same partisans who demand fealty and adherence to political dogma from the executive and legislative branches have their eyes set on the judiciary, leading campaigns against judges who they feel are failing to embrace their political agenda. This year, their target is Alaska Supreme Court Justice Sue Carney, who’s up for her first retention vote.
You can read the Alaska Judicial Council’s report on Justice Carney if you want specifics, but the bottom line is that she’s exactly the kind of judge who serves Alaskans well. She’s received high marks from attorneys arguing cases in her court, as well as from court employees. She has a stellar record as an attorney and as a judge, having served for close to 30 years as a lawyer for the Alaska Public Defender Agency and Office of Public Advocacy. She still makes time for community service and outreach, judging high school “We the People” competitions and serving as a coach and speaker for Youth Court.
Given her record, why has a group organized seeking her removal? In a word, politics. Those opposing Justice Carney’s retention have found fault with a handful of her decisions, mostly on hot-button issues such as abortion and the Permanent Fund dividend, and are using those decisions to justify a no vote on her retention. They call her an “activist judge,” which is partisan shorthand on both sides of the aisle for “a judge who does things we don’t like.”
It would be understandable to question the legal judgment of a judge who is wildly out of step with the people they serve and the majority of their peers. But this isn’t that. The Supreme Court’s decision on the PFD was unanimous. Even on the divisive issue of abortion, the court ruled 4-1, with Carney writing the opinion for the majority. Her decisions aren’t a result of her personal beliefs about the issues at hand — they’re a result of her interpretation of the law, an interpretation that was shared by the vast majority of her peers on the court. The relative uniformity of the verdicts is a signal the constitutional language is clear to those who know it best. Those who disagree with the verdicts disagree with Alaska’s constitution, not with Justice Carney, and they would be better served attempting to amend that document than trying to remove a judge who has faithfully interpreted it during her five-year tenure on the court.
By trying to change the proverbial referees rather than appealing for changes to the rules themselves, the interest groups seeking Justice Carney’s ouster from the court are trying to do precisely what America’s founders warned against: Move from a government run by laws to a government run by people — specifically, people who share the same partisan leanings and who are willing to ignore the law to put their personal beliefs into practice. It’s a practice that, if successful, would make Alaska’s judicial branch just as political and dysfunctional as the Legislature.
Our judicial system works. Our judicial retention system works. And Alaskans should be exceedingly wary of attempts to weaken those systems by making judges pass partisan purity tests to avoid opposition campaigns. Justice Sue Carney has earned her place on Alaska’s highest court, and voters should cast their ballots to retain her in November.