JUNEAU — Three Superior Court judges from Anchorage have been nominated to fill an upcoming Alaska Supreme Court vacancy.
On Tuesday, the Alaska Judicial Council voted to nominate Danya “Dani” Crosby, Jennifer Stuart Henderson and Yvonne Lamoureux to replace Joel Bolger, who announced his retirement last year.
Dunleavy will have 45 days to interview the nominees — all experienced attorneys — and choose. All three are relatively young and could serve for more than a decade and a half before reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. Of the 25 justices who have served on the state Supreme Court, just three have been women, and whoever Dunleavy selects will be the fourth female justice in the court’s history.
All three candidates were nominated for a different Supreme Court vacancy last year, but Dunleavy selected Dario Borghesan of Anchorage instead. On the November ballot, voters approved Crosby, Henderson and Lamoureux for retention.
This new selection will mark Dunleavy’s second pick for the state’s five-member high court, which is facing a wave of retirements before 2025.
Under the Alaska Constitution, the seven-member Judicial Council examines all applicants and either rejects them or adds them to a short list of nominees to be considered by the governor. The constitution requires the governor to pick one of the nominees from the list.
Seven people applied in January to fill the vacancy, and the Judicial Council voted to reject four applicants: chief assistant attorney general Margaret Paton-Walsh; Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman; Palmer attorney Ben Whipple; and Palmer Superior Court Judge Jonathan Woodman.
Tuesday’s votes were unusually close for the council, which typically debates in secret and renders unanimous votes in public.
In Roetman’s case, three members of the council voted for him and three against. That left Joel Bolger, Alaska’s current chief justice, to cast the deciding vote on a man who could replace him. He voted no.
Justices only vote when the six other members of the council are tied. According to Judicial Council records dating to 1984, that’s happened only seven times for a Supreme Court candidate. Three times, the chief justice has voted yes. This was the fourth no vote.
Through a spokesperson, Bolger declined to comment on his vote.
As part of the selection process, judicial council staff conduct a statewide survey of attorneys and ask them to rate the candidates on their performance and behavior. Crosby, Henderson and Lamoureux received the highest marks. Roetman rated sixth of the seven candidates.
Roetman was the only nonwhite candidate and the only one from rural Alaska. (Crosby grew up in Sitka but has lived in Anchorage since 1996.) As the vote came to a close, judicial council member Kristie Babcock said she would be voting no on every nominee except Roetman as a measure of solidarity.
“If we cannot move that name forward, then it’s not right to move any names forward,” she said.
Roetman is Mexican-American, and when his name was considered for a different Supreme Court vacancy last year, sitting legislators and prominent Kotzebue residents said his nomination was a chance to bring diversity to the court.
That year, Roetman was unanimously rejected.
In addition to the racial equity arguments, political considerations were raised. In a public comment period Monday, conservatives urged the council to select a “strict constructionist,” such as Roetman, for the Supreme Court.
Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Loren Leman asked the council to consider Roetman, Paton-Walsh and Whipple, and to recommend at least two of them.
“Roetman and Whipple have a strict constructionist background,” said law student Alexander Ioannidis, who testified in their favor and said he agreed with Leman.
Strict constructionism is a legal doctrine that says only the plain language of a document and the original intent of its author matter in legal rulings.
On the U.S. Supreme Court, strict constructionists have issued rulings most frequently in line with Republican perspectives. Here in Alaska, conservatives have often called for the removal of judges using arguments based on the strict constructionist principle.
When it came to Tuesday’s vote on Roetman, council members Lynne Gallant of Anchorage, Dave Parker of Wasilla and Babcock of Kenai voted in favor. All three occupy seats reserved for members of the public, and two were appointed by Dunleavy.
Voting against were Galen Paine of Sitka, Geraldine Simon of Fairbanks and Jonathon Katcher of Anchorage, plus Bolger with the tiebreaker. The first three occupy seats reserved for attorneys appointed by the Alaska Bar Association.
Even if Dunleavy is unhappy with his options, he must pick one of the three nominees.
Two years ago, he balked at being forced to choose two Palmer judges from a list of three nominees approved by the Judicial Council. After breaking a deadline in state law, he relented and selected a second judge from the list.
That broken deadline was later used as one of four grounds for the recall against him, and the state Supreme Court confirmed a lower court decision that said violating the law was sufficient reason for a recall.