Conservative group is targeting Superior Court Judge up for retention

The seal of the state of Alaska on a courthouse wall next to a flag.
The seal of the state of Alaska hangs on April 19, 2018, behind the dais where Alaska Supreme Court justices normally hear cases in the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

A conservative group is targeting a Superior Court Judge in Anchorage who is on the ballot for retention this year. Alaska Family Action is campaigning against Judge Sen Tan for decisions he made in the late 1990s on cases related to the issue of abortion. The Alaska Judicial Council is responding with an advertising campaign supporting Tan, calling him one of the highest rated judges in the state.

Alaska Family Action is using mostly e-mail and the Internet to campaign against judge Tan. But the group also has a giant RV, nearly completely covered with signs that say “Vote No – Judge Sen Tan and No Activist Judges.”

“We’re going from Talkeetna down to Homer and everywhere in between, just parking at busy intersections and handing out information,” Jim Minnery, President of Alaska Family Action, said.

Minnery is the one driving the RV, with his two yellow labs as companions. He says the group is also using robo calls to get their message out, but does not have funding for radio or TV ads. They are targeting Judge Tan for two decisions he made more than a decade ago. One of the rulings was against requiring parental consent for a teenager seeking an abortion.

“We think that that was an egregious usurpation of his authority, and it was nothing more than a thinly disguised mandate of his own beliefs,” Minnery said.

Twenty-six judges are up for retention across the state in this year’s election. And the Alaska Judicial Council is recommending voters retain all of them. The Council is in charge of providing recommendations and compiling ratings for all of Alaska’s judges. Larry Cohn, executive director of the Judicial Council says Judge Tan has some of the highest marks in the state.

“Social workers and advocates for Alaska’s abused and neglected children gave him a rare near perfect rating on our surveys,” Cohn said. “So our feedback from the people who are in the best position to observe judge Tan’s work rate him very highly.”

In response to Alaska Family Action’s campaign against Tan, the Judicial Council is running newspaper ads supporting Tan. Cohn estimates the council has spent a few thousand dollars on the ads. And Cohn says it’s important for the Council to defend judges with strong records on the bench.

“We see attacks like this as a threat to the independence and impartiality of our judiciary,” Cohn said.

Retired Alaska judge Elaine Andrews agrees. She says the job is not about winning a popularity contest.

“The nature of the job is that on your best day, half the world is going to be mad at you, because you have to rule in favor of one side of an issue and against the other,” Andrews said.

She says Alaska’s constitution was designed to protect judges from the divisiveness of politics, that’s why they are appointed instead of elected, and then stand for retention periodically.

“The expectation is you do your job carefully, you follow the law and if people don’t like the decision they appeal it, and if you interpreted the law incorrectly you’re going to get reversed. And if people are unhappy with the judges’ decision don’t like the law it’s based on, they go back to the legislature to get the law changed. That’s the process. And to sort of pick people off for unpopular decisions distorts that democratic process,” Andrews said.

But Minnery says judges can’t remove themselves from politics.

“Justices and judges are in the political environment whether they admit it or not,” Minnery said.

He says judges make decisions everyday about values in society.

“It’s ridiculous to say that we’re bringing politics into the discussion, when these judges are public servants and they willingly place themselves in the position that allows the public to periodically scrutinize their record and cast a vote accordingly,” Minnery said.

Minnery won’t say how much Alaska Family Action is spending on the campaign against Tan. In 2010, the group waged a similar campaign against Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe. She was retained by voters that year, but only narrowly, with 54 percent of the vote. Superior Court judges like Tan stand for retention every six years.

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Annie Feidt is the Managing Editor for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, KTOO Public Media in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace.
Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49th state just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon.
afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie

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