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Dunleavy bucks Alaska Constitution, refuses to fill vacancy on Palmer Superior Court bench

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy has refused to fill a Alaska Superior Court vacancy in the timeline prescribed by the Alaska Constitution and state law, saying in a letter to the Alaska Judicial Council that a list of nominees sent to him was inadequate. Governors have occasionally clashed with the judicial council, but this appears to be the first time that a governor has violated the statutory timeline for filling a judicial vacancy.

“Alaska’s constitutional judicial selection process is supposed to be merit and qualifications based,” the governor wrote in a letter dated March 20. “The list you provided me does not appear to uphold this important standard.”

The governor announced the appointment of judges to several vacant judgeships on Thursday, but when it came to filling two spots in the Palmer Superior Court, Dunleavy said he had a problem with the options sent to him by the Alaska Judicial Council.

According to Article IV of the state constitution, the governor fills vacancies in the state’s court system from a list of nominees approved by the nonpartisan judicial council. The council, which consists of three non-attorney members, three members of the state bar association, and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, receives applications from attorneys interested in becoming judges.

The council vets those applications, conducts interviews and formulates a list of finalists. Under the laws implementing that constitutional article, the governor has 45 days to make a selection.

In the case of the Palmer Superior Court, the judicial council named assistant Anchorage District Attorney John Cagle, Anchorage private-practice attorney Christina Rankin and Palmer private-practice attorney Kristen Stohler as finalists for two vacancies.

In his letter to the judicial council, the governor says the seven-member group made a mistake by not also including Peter Ramgren, “a candidate that you previously nominated for the Anchorage Superior Court and have currently nominated for the Anchorage District Court.”

“My office has requested more information from the Council on candidates that were not recommended, including the Council’s reasoning for excluding some candidates,” the governor wrote. “Thus far you have declined to provide me more information. I would like an opportunity to review and consider the Council’s reasoning to determine whether additional qualified candidates could be nominated by the Council for this position.”

Susanne DiPietro, executive director of the judicial council, said she received the governor’s letter Thursday afternoon, shortly before a phone call from the Daily News seeking comment.

She said the judicial council responded to all requests for information it received from the governor’s office.

“I sent every portion of our files that I could legally send,” she said, adding that the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court is willing to sit down with the governor’s representatives to explain the selection process.

As to why Ramgren was nominated for the Anchorage District Court vacancy but not the Palmer Superior Court vacancy, DiPietro compared the situation to a running race. A runner’s finish may be determined by the course and competition as much as the individual’s performance.

In the state’s legal system, different courthouses see different caseloads, she said, and without speaking of Ramgren in particular, she said the qualities, skills and abilities of different candidates are judged for different seats.

Twice in the past 30 years, governors have created showdowns with the judicial council, but each time, the governor has been the one to back down. In 1993, then-Gov. Wally Hickel said he was unhappy with his options for an Anchorage Superior Court judgeship. Hickel’s spokesman said at the time that he believed the governor thought the potential judges were “too liberal.” Hickel ended up picking Larry Card, the first black judge in state history, before the 45-day time limit expired.

In 2004, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski rejected a slate of nominees for the Anchorage Superior Court. After the judicial council met in emergency session and reconfirmed its list of nominees, Murkowski appointed Craig Stowers before the 45-day limit ended. Stowers now sits on the Alaska Supreme Court.

DiPietro said by phone that the Judicial Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting at 4:30 p.m. Friday to formulate a response to the governor, but it may lack a quorum on such short notice. She added that the immediate impact of the judicial vacancy is likely to be limited. Of the two vacancies in Palmer, one is for a judge who will be retiring in April, and as long as a replacement is appointed before then, there should be no gaps in service.

Dunleavy’s judicial picks

• Anchorage assistant district attorney John Cagle for a vacancy on the Palmer Superior Court

• Fairbanks private-practice attorney Nelson Traverso for a vacancy on the Utqiagvik Superior Court.

• Bethel district attorney Stephen Wallace for a vacancy on the Kodiak Superior Court.

• Anchorage private-practice attorney David Nesbett for a vacancy on the Anchorage District Court.

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