A dear friend surprised me recently when she confided “I always vote no on all the judges on the ballot.” Although my friend is typically middle-of-the-road when it comes to politics, this approach to voting on judges is extreme, and it undermines Alaska’s nonpartisan, independent judiciary.
Why on Earth would you vote to dispossess a person of their job simply because it is their job — without knowing a single thing about the judges you are voting against?
Alaska’s constitution requires that our judges be held accountable to voters periodically once they are on the bench. It delegates to the Alaska Judicial Council the responsibility for conducting evaluations of every judge’s job performance and requires the council to provide voters with information gathered during those evaluations. In this way, voters can be informed when they exercise their right to vote whether or not keep the judge on the bench.
While judges in some states must raise money to campaign from donors, often attorneys who may appear in front of them, and spend time thinking about how their decisions might affect their popularity with voters, and their donors, Alaska’s approach is different — and in my view, better. The review of a judge’s job performance is based on information gathered from many people who interact with that judge professionally. Why is this better? Because it allows judges to maintain independence so that they can decide cases only on the facts and the rule of law, rather than chasing public opinion or partisan or special interest politics for reelection.
For our system to work, however, the default position for voters should be a yes vote to retain the judge — not the other way around. A blanket no vote is an irresponsible way for voters to participate in our democracy. Don’t get me wrong — accountability to Alaskans is important, but it must be accountability based on sound and accurate information. Voting on judicial retention is an important opportunity for Alaskans to decide whether a judge is doing their job — but with that opportunity comes the responsibility to be informed.
The key to our judicial retention process is the Alaska Judicial Council, which is a nonpartisan, independent citizen body composed of three non-lawyers, three lawyers and the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. The chief justice rarely votes — and only if there is a tie vote. The council provides Alaskans with a wide array of important information about how well a judge carries out their duties as a judge. The council conducts comprehensive performance evaluations of every judge who is up for retention, and gathers detailed information from jurors, law enforcement and probation officers, social workers, attorneys, litigants, and others who have appeared in the judge’s court. The council also offers members of the public an opportunity to testify at open public hearings. The result? A detailed job review available for the public.
The council reviews all of the information gathered, determines whether or not the judge met the professional performance standards outlined in the council’s bylaws, and then votes whether or not to recommend the judge for retention. This year, the council, including the two laypeople appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, voted unanimously to recommend that voters retain every judge on the ballot. The evaluations for each of these judges are available to the public at: ajc.state.ak.us.
Few Alaskans have experience with the court system, which is probably a good thing. If you want to learn how well a judge is performing their job, I urge you to read information on the Alaska Judicial Council’s website, your voter pamphlet, Alaskans for Fair Courts or Alaskajudges.info. Each of these resources offers information to help you make a good decision about your vote.
If you decide, after looking at a judge’s performance evaluation, that they should be let go from the bench, I can respect that decision — even if I disagree. I just hope everyone recognizes that judges are people, and certainly none are perfect — but please do your homework before you vote so you can make an informed decision. Don’t vote no on all judges just because you can.
That’s my message to my friend, and I hope that it resonates with all of you as well.
Michael Geraghty is a former Alaska attorney general who was appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell. He served Alaskans from 2012-2014.