Judges will be judged Tuesday

Voters tackle retention issues on Election Day

Posted: Thursday, November 02, 2000

It may not be a jury by their peers for two Kenai Peninsula judges, but it's pretty close. On Nov. 7, local voters have an opportunity to decide if Superior Court Judges Jonathan H. Link and Harold M. Brown, both of Kenai, should be retained.

Unlike other offices being voted on the general election ballot, judicial retention comes without the fanfare of bumper stickers, pins and media advertisements. They stand on their record.

"What we do in the courtroom and in our professional capacity is what's before the voters," Link said, adding that the only time judges can campaign is when a campaign is launched against their retention.

Helping get the record before voters is a survey conducted by the Alaska Judicial Council, an independent state agency created by the Alaska Constitution. Fulfilling their obligation to evaluate judges whose names will appear on the ballot, the council gathers information on each judge from Alaska attorneys, peace officers, jurors, court employees and child protection workers. Public comments were encouraged through the council's Internet site and newspaper advertisements and were heard at a statewide public hearing in May.

On Tuesday, three Supreme Court judges, two judges from the Court of Appeals, 18 Superior Court judges and seven District Court judges are awaiting the voters' decision. The council has recommended all 33 be retained.

That has not always been the case, according to Bill Cotton, the council's director. He said in 1976, 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1988, the council made recommendations not to retain certain judges.

"I'm virtually certain the council never recommended against a Kenai Peninsula judge," said Cotton, who has been with the council since 1990.

"I think the council has sent a pretty clear message to judges that if they don't measure up, (the council) will recommend against them," Cotton said. "Frankly, the judges know we ask almost everyone who has been in their courtroom to give an evaluation of them."

Evaluation results can be reviewed on the World Wide Web at http://www.ajc.state.ak.us/. Some of the feedback is not made public, including credit reports and comments of a confidential nature.

"We just collect a lot of information and the idea is that each single part is not valid in itself, but if you put it together you get a pretty complete picture of the judge," Cotton said.

Link has been in Alaska 31 years. For the last 10 years, he has served as Superior Court Judge in Kenai. Between 1972 and 1990 he had a private practice of law in Anchorage and Fairbanks. He has been on the Alaska Conference of Judges' board of directors, was a commissioner on the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct until last January and also sat on the Alaska Bar Association's Board of Governors.

Two hundred fifty-five Alaska Bar members evaluated Link for his legal ability, impartiality, integrity, judicial temperament, diligence and special skills. On a scale of 1 (unacceptable) to 5 (excellent), they gave him an overall rating of "good" (3.8). His highest marks came in the areas of integrity, judicial temperament and special skills.

Sixty-two peace and probation officers were asked to evaluate Link's impartiality, integrity, judicial temperament, diligence and special skills and gave him an even higher overall score of 4.3, the highest marks going to integrity and judicial temperament.

Eight social workers evaluating Link scored him 4.9 for integrity, with an overall score of 3.9. Court employees also had their say, giving Link the same overall score as that given by the bar association. Jurors were asked about Link's ability to maintain order in a courtroom, whether he was courteous, respectful or fair, and their impressions of his skill and intelligence as a judge. They came back with an "excellent" rating. Following are some of their comments.

n "I liked it when he explained the laws to the jury. It's one thing to think you know the law, another when explained and told the law."

n "There was a young child testifying in this case. Judge Link made sure that that was handled appropriately."

n "During some segments of this lengthy and complicated trial, many people succumbed to droopy eyelids, but Judge Link was very attentive throughout the process."

n "If the courtroom were a canine, it would sit and stay on Judge Link's command."

n "He showed that he is smart, but not uppity; he is experienced but not flaunting in his demeanor."

n "If I ever had to go to court, I would want Judge Link for a judge."

n "Thought he was too easy on people who did not want to serve as a juror."

n "I served on a jury on two separate occasions with Judge Link. It seems funny to circle 'excellent' on all of these questions, but Judge Link actually impressed me that much."

Complaints were received from an individual unhappy with Link's scheduling of a Sunday hearing. Five criminal defendants and the spouse of a defendant said they believed Link had treated them unfairly. Saying they were dissatisfied with Link's performance were three parties in family law-custody cases, the parent in a Division of Family and Youth Services and one other individual.

Brown, a 29-year resident of Alaska, began serving as a Superior Court Judge in Kenai in 1996. Prior to that, he was executive director for the Alaska Judicial Council from 1987 until 1989, was Alaska's attorney general from 1985 until 1986, and a district attorney in Ketchikan from 1971 until 1973. He is a part president of the Alaska Bar Association, sat on that organization's board of governors and was a fellow with the American Bar Association.

Two hundred forty-five Alaska Bar members were given the opportunity to evaluate Brown and came back with an overall score of 3.7 for his legal ability, impartiality, integrity, judicial temperament, diligence and special skills, with integrity and judicial temperament receiving the highest scores.

Forty-six peace and probation officers gave Brown an "excellent" rating of 4.2. Their responses to sections on integrity and judicial temperament topped the scale.

Social workers also rated Brown "excellent," particularly in the area of integrity. Court employees and jurors followed suit, giving Brown "excellent" scores.

Following are some comments provided by jurors.

n "Judge Brown has a perfect poker face."

n "He was very courteous to everyone at all times -- even to the attorneys when he disallowed some evidence and they argued about it. He never lost his 'cool.'"

n "There was some videotaped depositions we had to watch, which were dreadfully dull. The judge may have closed his eyes but I wouldn't know because mine were closed too!"

n "I was impressed with his professional but "no nonsense" approach to both jurors and prosecutor-defendant groups. He was courteous even with 'silly' questions or comments. He appreciated the help from the jury."

n "Judge Brown brought a sense of humanity to the courtroom through his tasteful use of wit and humor."

n "He was patient and compassionate while maintaining a strong, authoritative presence in the courtroom."

n "If I am called to jury duty again, I hope it would be in Judge Brown's court. The courtesy shown to all involved made a difficult task so much easier. Judge Brown is a very fair and impartial judge. Attorneys could learn a lesson of value from him!"

Complaints about Brown came from three criminal defendants who were unsatisfied with how they were treated by the judge. Three litigants in family law and custody disputes and two other individuals also were dissatisfied with Brown.

What happens if voters decide not to retain a judge?

"The judge is not a judge anymore," Cotton said, explaining that such a vote would result in the judge being out of office within 90 days of the election and unable to be reappointed for four years. In that event, the council would accept applications, review them and forward the nominations to Gov. Tony Knowles.

"The Governor has to pick from among the nominees," Cotton said.

Included in the evaluation process was a questionnaire each judge was asked to complete. In it, they were directed to assess their own judicial performance.

"I enjoy being a judge," Brown wrote. "There is something new happening every day, and you get a real sense of contribution to the community."

Link wrote of the personal satisfaction he gains from serving as a judge.

"I look forward to continued work to make the judicial process less expensive, quicker and more accessible to the public we serve." he wrote.

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