Chief Justice Bolger, who refused to bow to political pressure, announces he’ll retire at end of term

Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger announced today that he plans to retire from the court at the end of his three-year term as chief justice on June 30, 2021.

In an announcement from the Alaska Court System, the early announcement is intended to give ample time for the multi-month process to fill a judicial vacancy to play out and Bolger “wishes to ensure a smooth transition.”

In his time as the top justice and head of Alaska’s court system, Bolger made headlines for butting heads with Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy over the independence and impartiality of the court system.

“The court system will continue to do our work independently of any outside political interests or financial influences so that the public can continue to be certain that each court decision is fair and impartial,” Bolger said in his 2020 address to the Alaska Legislature. “I can also assure you that the court system maintains an unbreakable commitment to deliver equal justice for all, no matter the obstacles we face. Despite the growing workloads and the decreased staffing, we are determined to fulfill our obligation to decide all matters brought before us fairly and efficiently with respect to the parties involved, the interests of the public and the rule of law.”

The speech came after Dunleavy vetoed $334,700 from the court system’s 2019-2020 budget over an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that struck down an anti-abortion law passed by the Alaska Legislature, a veto he would repeat in the current budget. In October of this year, a Superior Court judge ruled that the veto was an unconstitutional infringement on the court’s independence.

The governor also ignored the law in filling a vacancy on the Palmer Superior Court, a move that also earned him a lesson on the Alaska Constitution from Bolger.

“I believe the governor’s office does not understand the constitutional requirements for these nominations,” Bolger said in remarks during an emergency meeting at the time. “So, I’m going to spend some time outlining the requirements of the constitution and the bylaws and procedures the council has adopted to follow the constitution.”

Dunleavy and other conservatives have long chafed at the court’s independence and have sought efforts, either though rejecting retention of judges or constitutional amendments aimed at reworking the selection and retention process, to inject more conservative politics into the system.

Bolger recused himself from the deliberations on whether to allow the recall effort against Dunleavy to proceed, which included both Dunleavy’s veto of court system funding and the refusal to appoint a judge on time as grounds, noting that his statements as the system’s administrative head in defense of the court system’s independence and impartiality could call into question his independence and impartiality on the case.

“In those capacities, I have made public statements that could suggest strong disagreement with the governor’s conduct on some very fundamental issues affecting the judicial branch, conduct that forms part of the basis for the recall petition under consideration,” he wrote at the time. “In other words, this is a case where a reasonable person might question whether my judgment is affected by my overriding public responsibilities to the justice system.”

Dunleavy will have final say on who replaces him, but his decision will be limited to the slate selected by the independent and nonpartisan Alaska Judicial Council, which uses a merit-based system that is considered to be one the country’s best and most accountable forms of judge selection.

Bolger was appointed to the Alaska Supreme Court in 2013 by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. He was the first person to be appointed to all four levels of the Alaska judiciary, having also been appointed to the Valdez District Court in 1997, the Kodiak Superior Court in 2003 and the Court of Appeals in 2008.

He was selected by his fellow Supreme Court justices to serve as chief justice in 2018. The term as chief justice is three years and cannot be held by the same justice for two consecutive terms.

The Alaska Constitution forces Supreme Court justices to retire at the age of 70. Bolger is 65.

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