In a recent opinion piece, Kristie Babcock called into question Chief Justice Joel Bolger’s dedication to fairness, diversity and rural Alaska, based on his vote declining to advance Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman as a candidate for the upcoming Alaska Supreme Court vacancy. Ms. Babcock’s accusations are baseless, and they reflect a startling ignorance of the chief justice’s life and career. As his former law clerks, we write now to correct the record on Justice Bolger’s lifetime of dedicated service to all Alaskans.
Justice Bolger grew up in rural Iowa and moved to Alaska soon after law school. He began his legal career in Kodiak and Dillingham, where he represented Alaskans as an attorney for the Alaska Legal Services Corp. He served as a public defender in Utqiagvik, then returned to Kodiak and entered private practice, which he continued for 15 years. As a judge, Justice Bolger was appointed by four different governors and won retention four times. He began his judicial career in Valdez, serving as a district court judge for six years. He was then selected as a Superior Court judge in Kodiak, where he served for five years, before ultimately being appointed to the Alaska Court of Appeals and then the Alaska Supreme Court.
All told, Justice Bolger spent 30 years, from 1978 to 2008, working as an attorney and a judge in rural Alaska. This is far from the “very urban and urbane” life that Ms. Babcock accuses him of leading. Justice Bolger didn’t move to Anchorage until 2008, when his appointment to the Alaska Court of Appeals made doing so necessary.
As his former law clerks, we worked closely with Justice Bolger and came to know him well. We can vouch for his love and respect of rural Alaska and rural Alaskans. Justice Bolger always spoke fondly of his many years serving rural Alaskans and his time in Kodiak, Dillingham, Utqiagvik and Valdez. If anything, Justice Bolger’s fond reflections evidenced a tinge of regret — regret that, in pursuit of even greater service to the state, he had to settle down in its biggest city. We all remember his favorite part of the year, those few precious days in the summer when he left Anchorage, gun in one hand and fishing gear in the other, to sit quietly by the river, as far from the hustle and bustle of downtown as the plane would take him.
Given Justice Bolger’s life and career, the absurdity of Ms. Babcock’s allegation is readily apparent. No appellate judge in the Alaska judiciary today has more experience serving and working for rural Alaskans than the current chief justice.
Ms. Babcock’s baseless accusation of racism is equally absurd. As co-chair of the Alaska Fairness and Access Commission, Justice Bolger advocated for and helped establish measures that expanded the availability of legal services and information to all Alaskans. He also supported and broadened the “Bar to Bench” program, which focused on increasing the diversity of the Alaska judiciary by encouraging candidates from diverse backgrounds to become lawyers and judges. He lived out these principles in his hiring as well, and hired clerks from diverse backgrounds. Some of us fell in love with Alaska, and we stayed. During our tenure, he instilled in us deep respect for all Alaskans, and encouraged us to learn more about the blessings and challenges of living in rural Alaska. He supported us when we volunteered with a program that sent us to predominantly Alaska Native villages in hard-to-reach parts of the state with reduced access to professional services, where we assisted community leaders in staffing clinics where local residents could get help with their taxes. Without Justice Bolger’s support — and his patience and understanding when weather conditions inevitably delayed our return flights to Anchorage — these trips would never have happened and fewer Alaskans would have been served.
We do not seek to minimize the very real concerns about the lack of diversity on Alaska’s highest court. But these are difficult, complicated problems, and Ms. Babcock’s unsupported accusations of bias are not part of the solution.
The Alaska Judicial Council, established by the Alaska Constitution, comprises three attorneys, three public members, and the chief justice as a tiebreaker. The Judicial Council’s duty is to select at least two candidates who stand out as the most qualified for the judicial position being filled — not, as Ms. Babcock says, to forward “all highly qualified applicants.” The Judicial Council carefully reviewed and interviewed all of the applicants, then properly carried out its duties and determined that three of the seven applicants — Judges Danya “Dani” Crosby, Jennifer Stuart Henderson and Yvonne Lamoureux — stood out as the most qualified for the current vacancy. Their selections are not a reflection on Judge Roetman, who has faithfully served Alaska as a Superior Court judge in Kotzebue for more than 10 years, or on the other three applicants who did not advance, but instead on the incredible talent and skill of Judges Crosby, Henderson and Lamoureux.
Ms. Babcock voted to advance Judge Roetman, and Justice Bolger and three other members of the Judicial Council voted not to. That’s OK. That’s how the system is supposed to work. But what Ms. Babcock has done in the aftermath is not OK. Her unfounded accusations of urban bias and racial prejudice are nothing more than a transparent and flailing attempt to inject controversy into an uncontroversial process because it reached a result she didn’t like.
We stand by Justice Bolger and attest to his character, temperament and integrity. He is, in our considerable experience with him, a fair judge and a good and kind person. We hope that his successor will serve Alaska — all of Alaska — with the same care, compassion and wisdom that Justice Bolger has brought to the bench for 24 years.
Source: Anchorage Daily News