Kristie Babcock: Only rural person of color denied opportunity by Chief Justice Bolger - Must Read Alaska
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Monday, October 25, 2021
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Kristie Babcock: Only rural person of color denied opportunity by Chief Justice Bolger

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By KRISTIE BABCOCK

Chief Justice Joel Bolger, like many lawyers, is good with words, but the words have no real meaning.

This is the lesson I learned during my first official session on the Alaska Judicial Council. I read the chief justice’s June 8, 2020 letter.  

Justice Bolger wrote: “We recognize that too often African-American, 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 community members, lawyers, and especially as judicial officers, we must do more to change this reality.”  

Yet when confronted with a test of his own prejudice, his own condescending attitude toward rural Alaska, his own “big city” bias, he failed the test.  

The vacancy the Judicial Council was dealing with was to replace the soon to be retired Bolger himself.  On his way out, he still wanted to control who might replace him. There was one applicant for the State Supreme Court who was from rural Alaska.  That same applicant was also the only person of color to apply.  

That applicant was Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman, presiding judge of the entire 2nd Judicial District.  The Judicial Council split 3-3 on nominating Judge Roetman.  

The tie-breaking vote was Chief Justice Bolger.  

Let us review what Bolger wrote just one year ago: 

“We judges must examine…what biases – both conscious and unconscious – we bring, and how we can improve our justice system…We must continue our efforts to make our court system and its judges reflect the community that we serve.”  

“We must also work to attract more people of color to the practice of law and, ultimately, to judicial careers.”

Read: Alaska Supreme Court puts its judicial activism in writing

When put to the test, Chief Justice Bolger proved his biases against even nominating a person of color and a person who lives in rural Alaska.  What did the (very white, and very urban, and urbane) chief justice have to say when he denied Judge Roetman even the opportunity to be considered for appointment?  Nothing.

In my opinion his vote tells the truth and his June 8, 2020 letter was just puffery.

Bolger had no trouble writing these words: “To heal the raw wounds of racism and history so painfully laid bare.”  But when it was up to him to nominate the only applicant who was both from rural Alaska and the only person of color, he voted no.  Instead, only three white, urban judges were nominated.  

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 Alaska Constitution is designed, the governor must appoint judges only from the nominations the Judicial Council sends along.   The Council has total control over the nomination.  The governor has no discretion except to pick from a list we send him.

And who are the seven members of the Judicial Council?  Three of us are public members, appointed by the Governor for six-year terms and subject to a vote of confirmation by a joint session of the Alaska Legislature. 

Three other members are privately selected by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association. Lawyers choosing lawyers to choose the judges.  That is the way the current system works.  The chief justice chairs the council and only casts tie-breaking votes.

Is it any surprise that the public members voted to give Judge Roetman a chance to be considered?  All three public members of the council were convinced Judge Roetman was highly qualified and deserved an opportunity to be considered by the Governor.  

The three lawyers voted no.   

What exactly was so negative about the presiding judge of the Second Judicial District that he should be denied the chance to be considered by the governor?   

He did not attend enough lawyer club activities in the urban areas?  Perhaps he does not dress the part?  Maybe he is good enough for rural Alaska, but not good enough for the big league in the big city?  Maybe he uses syntax that does not sound “white” enough?   I expect the responses from the lawyers will be what minorities are very used to hearing…not up to par, not quite good enough, not the “best timber,” does not have quite the right temperament, or some other gobbledygook.  

Those of us who are women recall such lame, chauvinist and absurd objections to our consideration in times past.   

At least the Judicial Council has moved beyond that prejudice, although it appears to still harbor some nasty biases – conscious or unconscious – when it comes to rural Alaska and people of color.

If only a presiding judge, a person of color, a lifelong Alaskan, with decades of experience, who lives and works and understands rural Alaska could be given the same opportunity. 

The ability, common sense and integrity of each applicant is what counts.  I do not make the argument that skin tone means very much, but Chief Justice Bolger prominently did. He made a huge point in his June 8, 2020, letter (a letter signed by 4 of the 5 members of the Supreme Court).  

The council is responsible for forwarding (at least two) names for nomination for every vacancy on the court, but nothing stops us from forwarding all highly qualified applicants for consideration by the governor.   

What Chief Justice Bolger, by his final act on the Judicial Council, did to the dreams and aspirations of people of color and rural Alaskans is devastating and terribly, terribly wrong.  

Kristie Babcock is a public member of the Alaska Judicial Council.  She is a lifelong Alaskan, business owner and resident of the Kenai Peninsula. She worked as director of boards and commissions for two governors and has observed the Judicial Council for over 30 years. 

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Latest comments

  • Roetman received a 3.4 rating. The second lowest of the 7 applicants. His application was blocked on merit. I thought republicans stood for merit-based hiring?

  • Justice Bolger long ago branded himself for just what he really is and with this action has joined the trial lawyers, on the council, in branding the council with the same brand and in the eyes of many not a brand any should be proud of….The courts and law enforcement in general have been degrading for some time as they both have turned political and this is just another action by an officer of the court that falls far short of the smell test.

  • English must be an evident first language. What else is required besides the innate respect of members of the private club? Please elucidate for us anyone who “can” do it meritoriously. My deepest thanks in advance.

  • The selection process leaves a lot to be desired. With that said, I know absolutely nothing about the man.

    With my knowledge of what it takes, time wise to really understand the Bush, I think making a big deal out of not selecting a person with just a very fews years, living in the Bush, is kinda like grasping for straws with the arguments I’m reading.

    Yes I want conservative judges, but with having the selection process we have, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see many, if any, move to the bench

  • BTW a review of available written materials among candidates Mr. Roetman is my choice. I don’t know his ethnic heritage. I appreciate the fact he stated his deep appreciation for the US Constitution which is very much needed in the Judicial Branch.

  • Wow, KRISTIE BABCOCK, I thought only leftist democrats believed in hiring based on skin color or gender identity. Is that what you are? I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you that the applicant that wasn’t chosen just MIGHT have been not chosen based on merit? Is merit now a bad word, and we’re supposed to hire based on something other than competency?

  • Paul Roetman is a good friend of Bill Walker and both were from Valdez.

  • G ALEUTIAN, an appreciation of the Constitution? I’ll bet that he even believes in limited government. No wonder our corrupt bureaucrats oppose him.

  • Studying the ratings of the judges before the last election, I found the lower the rating means a very good judge. After all, look who is rating them.

  • Ethnic heritage and skin color are the last thing a person is looking at for filling positions… Sorry… If you can’t do the job, then you can’t do the job. Your skin color has nothing to do with any of that. So let’s stop the race baiting shall we?

  • Bolger is told by the Dems what to do. He never was an independent jurist. As for Roetman, he was put on the lower bench by Sean Parnell. The three urban White Lib women were all appointed by disgraced, former Gov. Bill Walker. This selection is all about Democrat politics. The Dems couldn’t win IF the public voted for the next SCt. Justice, so they appoint one. That’s all.
    Roetman was too conservative and independent. The women are all woke. Bolger performed his last act. And We are all ****ed once again.

  • The Alaska Constitution need to be amended, the Judicial Council is corrupt and to liberal. Still the judges should be picked on merit and qualifications, not race. 

  • The words “rural” and “person of color” should mean exactly NOTHING on an application to any position, from dog catcher to governor.

    Experience, Wisdom, Respect for the Law and personal Integrity matter. Acquire more of those and you’ll move up the ladder. Being “brown enough” is not a qualification.

  • Angry Viking, I do beg to differ. Life experience is a most valuable attribute, and especially for one making decisions affecting many lives it is necessary to understand the lifestyles of those being judged. Perhaps ‘brown enough’ does not matter so much but rural definitely does.

  • The lower rating usually means someone who follows the constitution. Since many (not all- but currently the preponderance) left wing lawyers hate the constitution, and coincidentally, so do practically all leftist judges, the lower rating just indicates their hatred for the constitution extends to those who love and abide by it.

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