By James Brooks
Three sitting judges and two state attorneys are among seven people vying to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Alaska Supreme Court.
The Alaska Judicial Council announced the applicants this week, and after a series of surveys, interviews and public hearings, will meet in mid-November to pick a list of finalists eligible for the position.
Alaska’s governor makes the final selection, but this year is an election year, and if incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy loses his re-election campaign, the final selection could be made by the lame-duck governor or his replacement. If Dunleavy wins, he will have until just after the new year to make his selection.
The seven candidates for selection include three judges: Anchorage Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby, Sitka Superior Court Judge Jude Pate, and Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman.
All three have extensive legal experience, and Crosby was one of three finalists for a Supreme Court vacancy last year. Dunleavy ultimately chose another candidate.
Pate served for years as a public defender before former Gov. Bill Walker appointed him to Sitka’s Superior Court seat in 2018. The Alaska Supreme Court currently has no members from Southeast Alaska.
Roetman is one of the state’s most experienced Superior Court judges, having been appointed in 2010 by former Gov. Sean Parnell. He unsuccessfully applied for Supreme Court vacancies in 2016, 2020 and 2021.
In 2020, Roetman’s nomination received support from a handful of state legislators and other officials who noted that appointing Roetman, who has Mexican-American heritage, would change the fact that the Supreme Court has no nonwhite members or people from rural Alaska.
That year, members of the public, including former Republican Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, testified in support of Roetman, calling him a “strict constructionist,” a term that’s been used to describe the legal theory employed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority.
The judicial council declined to add him to its shortlist of nominees that year.
After he again failed to make the judicial council’s shortlist of applicants in 2021, Dunleavy asked the council to reconsider — an unusual step barred by the council’s bylaws. The council did not reconsider its action and Dunleavy appointed someone else.
State attorneys Margaret Paton-Walsh and Kate Demarest, also among the seven applicants, are among the top litigation attorneys at the Alaska Department of Law.
Demarest is a senior assistant attorney general in the opinions, appeals and ethics section, while Paton-Walsh is the chief assistant attorney general in charge of special litigation.
Paton-Walsh applied for the 2020 and 2021 Supreme Court vacancies but did not make the shortlist of finalists; she also applied for an Anchorage Superior Court vacancy this year and was a finalist but was not selected.
Demarest also was a finalist for the Superior Court vacancy and has simultaneously applied for another Superior Court vacancy that will be filled about the same time as the Supreme Court vacancy.
Two of the seven applicants for the Supreme Court vacancy are working in private practice. Aimee Oravec of Fairbanks is the general counsel for Doyon Ltd., the regional Native corporation for Interior Alaska. Holly Wells of Anchorage is an attorney at Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot and has repeatedly argued cases in front of the Alaska Supreme Court, including the recent cases involving legislative redistricting.
Each of the seven candidates is seeking to replace Chief Justice Daniel Winfree, who will retire after reaching the state’s constitutionally mandated retirement age.
All seven candidates will be the subject of a statewide bar association survey through Aug. 26, and Alaska attorneys will be asked to rate each candidate’s skills, ability and fairness.
The six-member judicial council will hold public hearings and collect public testimony on each candidate during its November meetings. Comments may also be submitted via email through the council’s website, ajc.alaska.gov.