Selection committee votes Tuesday on finalists for Alaska Supreme Court vacancy

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy will make the final selection; he was sworn into a second term Monday by one of the applicants

By: - December 5, 2022 5:23 pm
This screenshot from Gavel Alaska shows Senior Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh speaking in front of the Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Anchorage.

This screenshot from Gavel Alaska shows Senior Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh speaking in front of the Alaska Supreme Court on Oct. 12. Paton Walsh is one of seven applicants for an upcoming vacancy on the court. (KTOO screenshot)

The seven members of the Alaska Judicial Council will vote Tuesday morning on a shortlist of nominees to become the next member of the Alaska Supreme Court.

Since Monday morning, members of the council — which includes the Chief Justice, three attorneys appointed by the Alaska Bar Association and three public members appointed by the governor — have been interviewing the seven candidates who applied for the job.

The seven include three lower-court judges, two state attorneys and two attorneys in private practice.

The council must pick at least two of the seven for its shortlist, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy will have 45 days to pick the new justice. That person will replace Daniel Winfree, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008 and is retiring after reaching the constitutional age limit of 70.

Justice Peter Maassen, the court’s next chief justice, is scheduled to retire no later than January 2025. If Dunleavy completes his second term, he will have appointed four of the five Supreme Court justices by the time he leaves office.

In a round of public testimony Monday afternoon, testifiers praised Aimee Oravec of Fairbanks and Paul Roetman of Kotzebue, two of the options for replacing Winfree.

Oravec is the general counsel for Doyon Utilities, the Alaska Native-owned subsidiary of Doyon Ltd. that operates the utilities at Fort Wainwright, Fort Greely and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Attorney Lance Parrish, who worked alongside Oravec, said he recommends her as a justice because of her experience in utilities law, which can involve decades-long contracts as well as a complicated state regulatory process.

He said he also was impressed by her prior experience in a gender-based harassment case, which included arguments in front of the Supreme Court.

Kip Norris, testifying by phone, urged support for Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Roetman, whom he called a friend from Valdez.

Norris noted Roetman’s blue-collar background and history as a commercial fisherman, saying Roetman could offer a different perspective on the court.

“He’s a man who hunts for meat, not for antlers, and cuts firewood for heat. And I think he would have an understanding of some uniquely Alaskan situations that might be very helpful on the Supreme Court,” Norris said.

All five current members of the Alaska Supreme Court are from either Fairbanks or Anchorage; Roetman, from Kotzebue, and Superior Court Jude Pate, from Sitka, are the only applicants not from either city.

This is Roetman’s fourth time applying for a Supreme Court vacancy, and when he applied in 2020, several Alaska Native leaders — including members of the state Legislature — urged that he be named to the judicial council shortlist in order to provide representation from rural Alaska, but council members voted against his nomination.

Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman also urged Roetman’s selection in 2020. Roetman was a legislative aide to Leman in 2001, and the former lieutenant governor praised Roetman, a graduate of the Pat Robertson-founded Regent University, as a “strict constructionist,” a term that’s been used to describe the legal theory employed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority.

Roetman swore Dunleavy into office in 2018 and again on Monday.

Last year, Dunleavy took the unusual step of asking the judicial council to reconsider its list of nominees after Roetman failed to make the cut.

Reconsideration is prohibited by the council’s bylaws, and Dunleavy subsequently withdrew the request.

Pate, appointed a Superior Court judge in February 2018 by Gov. Bill Walker, is a former public defender who also worked for the tribal government of Sitka and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. 

According to his resume, he has worked on a wildland firefighting crew, as a short-order cook, a bartender, film projectionist, hotel maid and an attendant in a tanning salon, among other jobs.

Several of the other applicants, in addition to Roetman, have previously applied for vacancies on the Supreme Court.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby made the Judicial Council’s shortlist of candidates in 2020 and 2021 but was not selected by Dunleavy.

A former Sitka resident, Crosby has lived in Anchorage for more than two decades and has experience as a private-practice attorney. According to her resume, she briefly worked for the environmental law firm Earthjustice during law school at Gonzaga University, then interned for state judges before entering private practice, then starting her own firm. 

Margaret Paton Walsh and Kate Demarest are two of the top litigation attorneys at the Alaska Department of Law. Paton Walsh applied for the 2020 and 2021 Supreme Court vacancies; Demarest applied for the 2020 vacancy but not the 2021 vacancy. Neither made the Judicial Council’s list of finalists in those years. 

Demarest is currently a finalist for one of two vacant positions on the Anchorage Superior Court; Dunleavy will fill those vacancies toward the end of December.

Private practice attorney Holly Wells, one of the seven candidates being considered this week by the Judicial Council, has never applied for a judgeship before. According to her resume, she has 17 years’ experience in private practice and was one of the leading attorneys in the litigation surrounding Alaska’s legislative redistricting process.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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