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Frequently Asked Questions About Retention

Why are judges on the ballot?

Alaska's constitution and statutes require judges to periodically appear on the ballot (stand for retention) to allow the voters to decide whether the judges should continue in office. Judges' terms vary from 4 to 10 years depending on the court on which the judge serves.

 

Judicial retention elections are non-partisan. Judges do not run “against” anyone; instead, they run to retain their positions based on their performance in office. Judges are not allowed to campaign unless someone actively opposes their bid to stay in office.

 

Why should I vote for judges on the ballot?

Chances are that you or a close friend or family member will appear before a judge at some point. Judges have the power to preserve your rights as a citizen, determine child custody and other important family matters, resolve business disputes both large and small, send people to jail, and make other decisions that affect people in fundamental ways. You do a public service to your fellow citizens by voting to retain judges who perform well and voting not to retain a judge who does not meet expectations.

 

Where can I find information about the judges on the ballot?

Because judicial retention elections are non-partisan and judges are not allowed to campaign, voters may wonder how to cast an informed ballot. The Alaska Judicial Council is required by law to provide information about judges to voters. Summaries of the Council’s judicial evaluations are published in the Lieutenant Governor’s Official Election Pamphlet, and on this web site. The Council’s complete performance evaluation reports on each judge standing for retention are available on the Council’s web site or by contacting the Council. Also available in the Official Election Pamphlet and on this web site are the Council’s recommendations about which judges meet performance standards and should be retained in office.

 

What information does the Alaska Judicial Council collect about a judge’s performance?

The Council thoroughly reviews a judge's performance before the retention election. The Retention Evaluation Procedures page describes the evaluation process in more detail.

 

What are the performance standards used by the Alaska Judicial Council to evaluate judges?

The Council examines all the information collected about each judge to determine whether the judge met performance standards. These performance standards, which are defined in the Council’s Bylaws, are:

  1. Legal Ability. The judge demonstrates knowledge of substantive law, evidence, and procedure, and clarity and precision in their work.
  2. Impartiality/Fairness. The judge demonstrates a sense of fairness and justice and treats all parties equally.
  3. Integrity. The judge’s conduct is free from impropriety or the appearance of impropriety, and the judge makes decisions without regard to possible public criticism.
  4. Judicial Temperament. The judge is courteous and free from arrogance, and the judge manifests human understanding and compassion.
  5. Diligence and Administrative Skills. The judge is prepared for court proceedings, works diligently, and is reasonably prompt in making decisions.

 

Why does Alaska use retention elections for judges?

Alaska’s constitution and statutes require that each judge be subject to approval or rejection on a nonpartisan ballot by a vote of the people. These constitutional provisions were debated extensively by the delegates at Alaska’s constitutional convention as part of the judiciary article, Article IV. The delegates wanted judges to be independent, but also to be accountable to the electorate. Nonpartisan, periodic retention elections were chosen by the delegates, and ratified by the people, as the best way to strike this balance.

 

Other parts of Article IV govern how judges in Alaska are selected. Alaska uses a merit system where the Alaska Judicial Council screens applicants for judgeships and nominates the most qualified to the governor for appointment. The delegates to the constitutional convention chose this merit selection system as the best way to find the most qualified applicants, and to prevent special interests and political parties from playing a major role in the selection of judges. As a result, Alaska does not experience the problems that arise when elected judges make promises to, and raise money from, people and attorneys who appear before them.

 

How do I vote on judges?

In a general election, you are asked to vote “yes” or “no” to retain the district court and superior court judges in your judicial district whose terms in office are ending. In addition, all Alaskans are asked to vote “yes” or “no” to retain supreme court justices and court of appeals judges whose terms in office are ending.

 

There are four judicial districts in Alaska. The First Judicial District includes communities in Southeast Alaska. The Second Judicial District includes communities in North and Northwest Alaska. The Third Judicial District includes communities in South Central Alaska, Dillingham, and the Aleutian chain. The Fourth Judicial District includes communities in interior Alaska.

 

If you have a comment on a judge or the retention process, visit the Submit Comments on Judges or the Retention Process page.

 

How often does the Alaska Judicial Council recommend against the retention of a judge?

On a few occasions, when the Council found a judge’s performance to be below acceptable, the Council has recommended against the retention of that judge. This is a rare occurrence because Alaska’s judicial merit selection system is designed to nominate applicants with the best judicial attributes. The merit selection system’s focus on professional qualifications has encouraged well-qualified attorneys to apply for judicial positions, and the individuals nominated by the Council and appointed by the governors have performed well in office.

 

Since 1976, the Council has recommended against a judge’s retention twelve times. The Council recommended against the retention of a judge in 2006, 2008, and 2014. The other recommendations against the retention of a judge occurred in the 1970's and 1980's.

 

Voters have decided to not retain six judges in Alaska’s history: Justice H.O. Arend (1962); Anchorage District Court Judges Joseph Brewer and Virgil Vochoska (1982); Kenai District Court Judge David Landry (2006); Anchorage District Court Judge Richard Postma, Jr. (2010); and Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey (2018).

 

What about judges who make unpopular decisions?

Sometimes a judge is asked to resolve a contentious or divisive dispute, or a dispute involving a social issue. As in all cases, a judge must do his or her best to fairly and impartially apply the law, even if it requires the judge to issue a decision that is unpopular, or which conflicts with the judge’s personal beliefs. This is the essence of judicial independence. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist once said, "The Constitution protects judicial independence not to benefit judges, but to promote the rule of law: Judges are expected to administer the law fairly, without regard to public reaction."

 

When any of us appear in court, we deserve to be treated with respect, listened to, and dealt with fairly by the judge. We need a judge who will understand our arguments, properly apply the law, and then explain their decision. These fundamental tasks of a judge are reflected in qualities such as judicial temperament, impartiality, fairness, and legal ability. That is why each judge standing for retention is evaluated by the Council against these criteria.

 

From time to time, efforts are made to unseat a judge because of political or ideological disagreement with a particular decision. These efforts may be aimed at influencing future decisions of other judges. These types of efforts to unseat a judge diminish the neutrality and impartiality of our judiciary.

 

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