Politics

Gov. Dunleavy wants new nominees for Alaska Supreme Court vacancy in latest dispute over judicial picks

With 10 days to pick Alaska’s next Supreme Court justice, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is pushing back against a list of nominees sent to him by the Alaska Judicial Council. The governor must fill a vacancy by July 11 or risk violating the constitution.

The Alaska Judicial Council nominated three Superior Court judges from Anchorage to replace Justice Joel Bolger, who retired Thursday. Under a process written into the Alaska Constitution to prevent cronyism, the governor must pick one of those nominees: Danya “Dani” Crosby, Jennifer Stuart Henderson or Yvonne Lamoureux.

In a letter dated Thursday, Dunleavy asked the Alaska Judicial Council to send him more nominees and asked members to reconsider their rejection of Paul Roetman, a Kotzebue judge who was the only rural applicant. Roetman was also endorsed by Republicans who believe he has a conservative view of the law.

The council is a seven-member group that includes three members of the Alaska Bar Association, three members of the public and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. Its bylaws say it should nominate the “most qualified” candidates to the governor. As part of the vetting process, judicial council staff conduct a statewide survey of attorneys and ask them to rate the candidates on their performance and behavior. The three nominees received the highest marks. Roetman rated sixth of the seven candidates.

Alaska’s constitution requires the governor to pick judges from the shortlist of nominees chosen by the council.

Asked at a news conference Thursday what he would do if the council declines to offer new nominees, Dunleavy said, “We will follow the constitution. We will follow the law.”

Dunleavy previously turned down all three of the current nominees for a prior vacancy on the state’s highest court.

The constitution does not allow governors to select from outside the list, and the council’s bylaws prohibit reconsidering the list unless so many nominees withdraw or die that the governor has fewer than two options.

The council on Thursday was considering how to respond, said its executive director, Susanne DiPietro.

DiPietro said the council could choose to change the bylaws, but five of the council’s six voting members recently voted to reaffirm the bylaws as written.

Dunleavy has until July 11 to pick one of the council’s three nominees for the Supreme Court vacancy. If the judicial council declines to reconsider its list of nominees and if Dunleavy declines to pick one, it would trigger a constitutional crisis with few precedents in Alaska history.

In 1993, then-Gov. Wally Hickel asked the council for a new list of nominees to an Anchorage Superior Court seat, complaining, among other factors, that all four choices were registered Democrats. After the judicial council declined to reconsider its nominees, he picked Larry Card, the first Black judge in Alaska history.

In 2004, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski rejected all three nominees for an Anchorage Superior Court seat but reversed himself just over a month later after a backlash that included a lawsuit, a resolution by the state bar association and the pursuit of a court order by the Alaska Legislature against the governor.

Dunleavy himself has previously been entangled with the issue. In 2019, he refused to fill a Palmer Superior Court vacancy on a timeline prescribed by state law and the constitution. The circumstances were different — the council offered three names for two vacancies on the Palmer Superior Court — but the governor’s failure to appoint a judge on time was cited as a factor in the recall campaign against him.

In that case, Dunleavy filled the vacancy after a meeting with the Supreme Court’s chief justice, now-retired judge Joel Bolger.

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