Chief Justice Bolger denied opportunity to only rural minority Supreme Court candidate
Chief Justice Joel Bolger, like many lawyers, is good at words, but words have no real meaning.
This is the lesson I learned during my first official session at the Alaska Judicial Council. I have read the letter from the Chief Justice of June 8, 2020.
Justice Bolger wrote: “We recognize that too often African Americans, Alaska Natives and other people of color are not treated with the same dignity and respect as white members of our communities. And we recognize that as members of the community, lawyers and especially as bailiffs, we must do more to change this reality.
Yet when faced with a test of his own prejudices, of his own condescending attitude towards rural Alaska, of his own “big city” bias, he failed.
The vacant post held by the Judicial Council was itself to replace Judge Bolger, soon to retire. Coming out, he still wanted to control who could replace him. A candidate for the state Supreme Court was from rural Alaska. This same applicant was also the only person of color to apply.
This applicant was Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman, Presiding Judge for the entire Second Judicial District. The Judicial Council was divided by 3-3 on the appointment of Judge Roetman.
The deciding vote was Chief Justice Bolger.
Let’s review what he wrote just over a year ago: “We judges must examine… what biases – conscious and unconscious – we bring, and how we can improve our justice system… We must continue our efforts. to make our justice system and its judges reflect the community we serve. “
“We also need to work to attract more people of color to the practice of law and ultimately to legal careers.”
When put to the test, Chief Justice Bolger proved his prejudices against even the appointment of a person of color and a person living in rural Alaska. What did the Chief Justice – very white, very urban and courteous – say when he denied Judge Roetman even the opportunity to be considered for an appointment? Nothing.
In my opinion, his vote is telling the truth, and his letter of June 8, 2020 was just a puff.
Judge Bolger had no trouble writing these words: “To heal the raw wounds of racism and history so painfully exposed.” But when it came to him to nominate the only candidate who was both from rural Alaska and the only person of color, he voted no. Instead, only three white and urban judges were appointed.
I was shocked that a highly qualified, sitting presiding judge was denied the opportunity to even be considered by the governor. You see, the way our constitution is designed, the governor should only appoint judges from the appointments that the Judicial Council sends out. The Board has full control over the bid. The governor has no discretion except to choose from a list we send him.
And who are the seven members of the Judicial Council? Three of us are members of the public, appointed by the governor for a six-year term and subject to a confirmation vote by a joint session of the Alaska Legislature.
Three other members are chosen privately by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association. Lawyers choose lawyers to choose judges. This is how the current system works. The Chief Justice presides over the council and casts only decisive votes.
Is it any surprise that members of the public voted to give Judge Roetman a chance to be considered? The three board members of the public were convinced that Justice Roetman was highly qualified and deserved an opportunity to be considered by the governor.
All three lawyers voted no.
What exactly was so negative about the President of the Second Judicial District that he should be denied the opportunity to be considered by the Governor?
Did he not attend enough Lawyers Club activities in urban areas? Maybe he doesn’t dress the role? Maybe he’s good enough for rural Alaska, but not good enough for the big league in the big city. Maybe he’s using syntax that doesn’t sound “white” enough. I expect the lawyers’ responses to be what minorities are used to hearing: not up to par, not quite good enough, not the ‘best wood’, not quite the right temperament, or another gobbledygook.
Those of us who are women remember those lame, chauvinistic and absurd objections to our consideration in the past.
At least the Judicial Council has gone beyond that prejudice, although it still appears to harbor some nasty prejudices – conscious or unconscious – when it comes to rural Alaska and people of color.
If only a presiding judge, a person of color, a longtime Alaskan with decades of experience, who lives, works and understands rural Alaska, could have the same luck.
The ability, common sense and integrity of each candidate is what matters. I’m not saying skin tone means much, but Chief Justice Bolger did it prominently. He made an important point in his letter of June 8, 2020 – a letter signed by four of the five members of the Supreme Court.
But when the going came true, when the vote was decisive, he killed Justice Roetman’s appointment – the only rural Alaska and the only person of color to even dare to run for the Alaska Supreme Court, entirely. urban and completely white.
The board is responsible for forwarding at least two names for nomination for each vacant position on the court, but nothing prevents us from referring all highly qualified candidates for consideration by the governor.
What Chief Justice Bolger, by his final act in the Judicial Council, did to the dreams and aspirations of the people of color and rural Alaska is devastating and terribly, terribly wrong.
Kristie babcock is a public member of the Alaska Judicial Council. She has been a lifelong Alaskan, business owner and resident of the Kenai Peninsula. She worked as a director of boards and commissions for two governors and observed the Judicial Council for over 30 years.