Two Alaskan Judges on Path to Federal Bench

Two Alaskan judges passed a first test Wednesday on their way to jobs on the federal bench. But there’s still far to go before either woman can serve.

Alaska Justice Morgan Christen and Alaska Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason withstood questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two have been nominated by President Obama for federal judge-ships.

Democrat Senator Mark Begich recommended them for the jobs, and Republican Lisa Murkowski spoke glowingly about them to her Senate colleagues Wednesday:

“Today’s hearing is especially historic because if confirmed Morgan Christen and Gleason will be the first two Alaskan women to serve on the federal bench.  As a member of the Alaskan bar and as a Senior senator from Alaska, let me say the President could not have nominated two more qualified individuals to fill these seats.”

Christen is up for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and would be only the third Alaskan even to sit on it. Gleason is up for a position as district court judge.

One of the committee’s most vocal Republicans, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, asked Judge Christen about her philosophy, and whether she thought empathy should enter into decisions.  President Obama once said judges should have empathy, a comment conservatives attacked… and Hatch doesn’t think it should factor into rulings. Christen said she doesn’t either.

“We’re not allowed to tilt the scales depending on how we feel about a case. But I believe there are life-lessons that we’ve all learned that are very important that judges retain and take with them to the bench. By that I mean that I think it’s important we’re always mindful that there are real people on receiving end of orders, and very often people’s lives on hold, or their businesses on hold waiting for our decisions. That’s why it matters very much that our work is timely for example.”

Democratic Minnesota Senator Al Franken asked Christen about her work as a private attorney representing the state during the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. She described what it was like working for a big team, and then the hearing hit one of its moments of levity – not all that common for such events. Franken may be known to Americans as the former Saturday Night Live comedian, but he often keeps a straight face as Senator.  Franken asked about the oil spill’s cause.

“Leading up to that there was some drinking involved was there?

Not by the litigation team.

I’ll do the jokes.

I kind of like yours better…”

That last voice was Senator Hatch, who said he’s throwing his support to Christen’s nomination, which bodes well for her.

Judge Gleason got a tougher grilling, mostly by the committee’s top Republican, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.  He focused on a report written back in 1985 when Gleason was in private practice, and coordinated a review of Alaska’s laws on sex discrimination.  Grassley called its findings controversial.

“You stated quote ‘the constitutional guarantee of equal rights and protection and the right to privacy present a strong argument in support of decriminalization of prostitution.’”

Gleason explained that she was the legal coordinator of the report, but not its sole author, and does not remember which sections of the 26-year-old study she wrote. But she said she has no strong opinion on legalizing prostitution.

“I really have not given any reflection on that. I do feel that there are issues in our society with regard to; it’s essentially a legislative prerogative. And if there were a law one way or the other it would be my obligation to enforce that law. OK…”

Grassley says the 1985 report takes the position that veterans’ benefits have gone farther than they were intended – to get service members reintegrated into civilian society – and that the benefits discriminate against women since fewer of them serve. But Gleason repeated that she didn’t author the report, and said she does not think any veterans should be denied benefits.

Grassley also asked if a state could impose restrictions on abortions.

“In my role of judge I could be called upon to address issues in the future but primarily my role would be to enforce the existing law of the land as annunciated by the United States Supreme Court.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on whether the nominees should be advanced to the full senate; first the record will be held open for a week.

Nominees have been getting confirmed by the senate at a snail’s pace due to partisan gridlock, so there’s no clear sense of when the judges’ could actually take the bench.

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