Bethel judge’s departure to head public defenders leaves hundreds of court cases in limbo

The Nora Guinn Justice Complex in Bethel. (Anna Rose MacArthur/KYUK)

A Bethel Superior Court judge’s shift to a new job in the state court system means that his current caseload needs to be assigned to other judges.

Judge Terrence Haas was selected in September by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to serve as the state’s chief public defender. In his new role, he will lead the Public Defender Agency, ensuring that the state provides quality criminal defense. As the head judge in Bethel and one of two Superior Court judges, he ruled on about half of the criminal cases in the state’s Fourth Judicial District.

The new position doesn’t begin until December, but Haas has recused himself from ruling on his cases as a judge before then due to the potential appearance of conflict of interest.

Haas had approximately 450 cases that need to be reassigned. Candice Duncan, the Fourth District’s area court administrator, said reassigning cases to new judges can be done in a variety of ways.

“One of the options that we sometimes have is utilizing judges who are retired for pro tem work,” Duncan said. “So they come in on a temporary basis out of retirement to take on cases, either singly or numerous cases, just depending on what’s needed. So that may be one option. And then also transferring cases to already sitting judges to handle is another option for some cases as well.”

Some of Haas’ cases have already been reassigned, but many are still waiting at the crossroads. Duncan said that it’s the same process the court system goes through when judges retire, and that there’s a gap during the handover. Court officials try to get the cases reassigned as soon as they can. In the meantime, some people are in jail, awaiting a new judge to rule on pending motions.

One high-profile defendant, Jalen Minock, has been in jail for two years and has been awaiting sentencing for six months. Minock, 22, was found guilty by a jury as an accomplice in attempted murder when shots were fired into a home with 12 people in it. He could serve more than 100 years in jail.

Minock’s defense has filed a motion seeking a new trial or an acquittal. He’s waiting for a ruling.

In October, the defense asked Haas for a ruling on the pending motion at a status hearing. Haas decided to recuse himself because of what could be seen as impropriety. The matter has since been assigned to Judge Brent Bennett of Fairbanks.

Haas said that he thought he would have more time to wrap up his caseload.

“I’ll note that when I was first nominated, I started organizing things to try to get things taken care of. And the governor acted orders of magnitude more quickly than in previous instances,” Haas said at a hearing in the case. “So I anticipated at least a month. And I think we got it, I think he got it taken care of in about a week and a half. So that was much quicker than anticipated.”

Bennett will need to work through the previous trial and decide whether or not there will be a new trial, or whether the defendant will be acquitted on some or all of the charges. The next status hearing will be on Dec. 12 to see if Bennett needs more time to rule on the defense’s motion.

“Judge Bennett should indicate in the log notes, so we need to get that done,” Haas said.

While that case has been reassigned, there are plenty of others still waiting.

Last week, the Alaska Judicial Council announced three applicants to fill Haas’ vacancy: Bethel District Attorney Mark Clark, Bethel District Court Judge William Montgomery and Alaska Court of Appeals staff attorney Sam Turner. In January, the council will hold meetings to learn about the applicants before passing on recommendations to Dunleavy. After that, the governor will select a judge within 45 days.

Duncan said Haas’ legacy in Bethel includes his membership in a number of court committees that were instrumental in implementing new technology, as well as being a leader in the court system during the pandemic.

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