Alaska Judicial Council nominates two candidates for Nome Judge
The Alaska Judicial Council nominated Romano DiBenedetto of Fairbanks and John Earthman of Nome for Governor Bill Walker’s consideration to appoint a new judge for the Nome Superior Court.
The council met in Nome last week to hear public testimony and to interview applicant John Earthman for the Nome Superior Court judge position. The other four applicants, former Nome Magistrate Judge Brooke Browning Alowa, Romano DiBenedetto, Tara Logsdon and Bride Seifert, were interviewed during hearings at other court venues where they also applied for judge positions. A sixth candidate, Joan Wilson, withdrew her application.
The council interviewed John Earthman in private.
According to Romano DiBenedetto’s biographical statement, he grew up in Chicago, graduated from University of Notre Dame and the Northwestern Law School, receiving his law degree in 1993. He worked at the district attorney’s office in Chicago and in 2011 “pursued a lifelong dram of moving to Alaska.” Since 2012 he works as a magistrate judge in Fairbanks. He lists as hobbies eating healthy, going to the gym, running and hiking and viewing sports.
John Earthman grew up in Houston, Texas has been an Alaska resident for 17 years, and has practiced law for as many years. He graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 1999, and is currently the district attorney in Nome. An avid hunter and birder, Earthman lives along the shores of the Snake River with his family, two bird dogs, one gyrfalcon and “too many pigeons.”
The Alaska Judicial Council is a citizen’s commission made up of three lawyers, three public members and Chief Justice Craig Stowers. Nome’s Loretta Bullard is one of the three non-attorney members. The council was tasked to find the most qualified applicants to fill the Nome Superior Court vacancy. After hearing from the public and then the interview with Earthman, the council reconvened in the Nome main courtroom to hold their vote in public. The council cast unanimously “no” votes for Alowa, Logsdon and Seifert. The votes were split on DiBenedetto and Earthman, thus advancing the two for nomination.
During public testimony, several Nomeites stepped forward to either endorse John Earthman or to deliver general comments on desirable traits and skills in a Nome judge.
Kawerak Inc. CEO Melanie Bahnke highlighted the need for a legally, temperamentally and culturally competent judge. She appealed to the council to taken into account that 75 percent of the regional population is of Native heritage and that also Native people make up the majority of people in the judicial system. Bahnke named several examples of judicial injustice done to Native people, beginning with clergy sexual abuse on Native children in the not-so-distant past; the execution-style shooting of a young Native woman by a Nome police officer while on duty; and finally a judge who made biased statements and thereby re-victimizing the victims. “We are the ones who have to live with the person who you recommend,” she said. “We need a judge who is willing to look at Alaska Native entities to seek for solutions outside of the box, who is willing to become culturally competent and who is willing to understand the Native culture and not mock it.”
Former public defender Kirsten Bey commented that she was concerned about the list of applicants with less than five years of experience as a lawyer or time spent in Alaska. “I find it mindboggling that somebody with only five years of experience in the law or in Alaska would feel competent to be a judge in rural Alaska,” she said. In way of explanation, she pointed to the lack of a professional and immediately available support system to advise the incoming judge to learn the ropes and also for newcomers to Nome, to learn about the community and its challenges.
Others voiced comments speaking of the high amount of cases related to alcohol and drug abuse, the lack of an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, the high caseload and unmet needs of defendants with mental health issues. And if that is not enough, there is also a threat that the Nome Youth Facility, the only juvenile detention center in the Bering Strait and NANA regions to be closed next year.
Chief Justice Craig Stowers acknowledged the testimony with sympathetic words. “I know that last year has been very tough on Nome,” he said. “I’m hopeful that a new day is coming.” He lauded the perseverance and competence of Nome’s court staff. “There is light at the end of the tunnel and I’m confident that Nome is going to be one of the shining stars of the Alaska court system,” Stowers said.
Former Nome Superior Court Judge Timothy Dooley was investigated for improper statements given from the bench and was censured. Health problems prevented Dooley from doing his job for the better part of 2016 and a host of traveling judges were sent to Nome to work on the Nome Superior Court caseload. According to an Alaska Judicial Council press release, Dooley is set to retire, thus creating the vacancy.
The council will submit the names of Romano DiBenedetto and John Earthman to Governor Walker in early January. Once the governor receives the nominations, he has 45 days to select a judge for Nome.