The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court announced that after he steps down from his position — at the end of this month — he will also be stepping away from the court next year and into retirement.
Walter L. Carpeneti, whose three-year term as chief justice ends in two weeks on June 30, announced his retirement in a court statement Friday. Justice Dana Fabe was selected to replace him as the next chief justice.
But who will fill a vacancy on the bench might take some time, which is why he announced his retirement well in advance, Carpeneti told the Empire in an interview Friday.
“The reason that’s so far ahead — 7 1/2 months — is to allow applicants to decide whether they want to apply; the Judicial Council to go through its really rigorous screening; the governor to make the appointment; and then the new justice to have time to get into the job,” he said.
“After three years on the Council, I now understand that it’s about a seven or eight month process, and I think that it’s really important that we not have big gaps in filling these positions,” he added.
The Supreme Court, the highest state court in Alaska which hears appeals from lower state courts and administers the state’s judicial system, is made up of five justices: one chief and four associate justices.
Carpeneti was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1988 by Gov. Tony Knowles, and he was named chief justice by the other justices in 2009.
Carpeneti said one of the biggest challenges for the court in the past year or two has been filling multiple vacant judicial positions in Bethel. Carpeneti said several factors have gone into that, including the remote location, difficult climate and amenities and a salary schedule for rural judges that hasn’t been updated since 1987.
“For a combination of factors, it’s been difficult to get a full compliment of judges out there, and that has cascading effects on everybody else in the system,” Carpeneti said. “The lawyers are constantly dealing with judges who are coming in just for a short period of time to fill in, and you build in a lot of inefficiencies when that happens. I know eveybody’s been trying hard to solve the problems, but they’ve been pretty consistent.”
One of the most difficult aspects of the job, he said, was balancing the administrative work that comes with being the chief justice with the normal casework of a justice deciding cases.
On the other hand, he said he was proud particularly of starting “Supreme Court LIVE,” where the court convenes inside high schools so students can watch the attorneys argue real cases in front of the court.
“Everything is the same — time limits, what the lawyers are entitled to argue, the way we treat it,” Carpeneti explained. “It’s just that instead of doing it in a courtroom, we do it in the school auditorium.”
After the arguments are made and the court retires to confer, the attorneys turn their chairs around and field questions from the student audience. The justices also take questions afterward about the process in general, although not about the case itself since it is still under submission.
“Teachers have told me it’s a really terrific learning experience because they see real cases being argued by real lawyers exactly as they do in the court, and then they have a chance to ask the lawyers questions about, ‘Why did you make this argument. Why did you answer the question that way?’” Carpeneti said. “... They get a very deep understanding of what’s going on.”
In a similar vein, Carpeneti also noted that he was proud of Alaska judges and the Supreme Court’s outreach to the citizenry at large.
“People won’t have confidence in what a branch of government is doing unless they really understand it,” he said, “and I’m very proud of our judges efforts in that regard.”
Maintaining the public confidence and trust is something that should continue to receive high priority, he said.
“I think it’s important for judges to be really transparent in their decisions, that they reach out to the public to explain what they do, that they make courts accessible so people don’t feel like there’s a barrier getting into court and being able to get justice,” he said. “I think those are the continuing obligations that judges and justices have.”
Carpeneti said that he will retire on Jan. 31, 2013. He said he plans of travelling with his wife, and maybe doing pro tem work to help out courts that are a little behind.
“I know how much I appreciate our pro tem judges now who come back and do that, so I think I should probably do the same,” he said. “But we plan to stay in Juneau and live in Juneau.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.