Alaska Chief Justice Fabe promoted for high court

Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Court watchers say the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court is highly regarded in judicial circles and President Barack Obama would be wise to take a close look at her in his first nomination to the Supreme Court.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, in fact, formally recommended Dana Fabe in a letter to Obama this week, citing the justice's reputation for excellence and integrity, as well as her work with female inmates eyeing release from prison. Jeff Feldman, a prominent Anchorage attorney, heartily agrees Fabe would be an excellent replacement for retiring Justice David Souter.

"She may not be on the short list of national commentators who are assembling a list of likely candidates, but by virtue of her position, she well belongs in the group of people who should be given serious consideration," said Feldman, who was a classmate of Fabe's at Northeastern University of Law.

Fabe, 58, is the first woman to serve on the Alaska Supreme Court, appointed in 1996 by then-Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat. Fabe, also a registered Democrat, has since been elected twice by her colleagues to serve two nonconsecutive terms as chief justice.

A native of Cincinnati, Fabe has enjoyed a 33-year legal career in Alaska, beginning in 1976 as a law clerk for then-Alaska Chief Justice Edmond Burke. Among other legal roles, she has worked as a public defender, chief public defender and Superior Court Judge. She is married to an Anchorage attorney and they have a grown daughter.

A judicial assistant to Fabe, Jo Ann Denson, said Friday evening the chief justice felt it was not appropriate to comment for this story.

Fabe is the president-elect of the National Association of Women Judges. Members of the Washington, D.C.-based organization say she is recognized among her peers as deeply grounded in the law but note she is equally compassionate about people.

"She has a national reputation among judges," said past president Brenda Murray, a federal law judge in Washington, D.C. "You say her name around the country and people know her - and they have a favorable opinion of her."

But as with other Supreme Court prospects, Fabe appears to have extensive corporate holdings, including Fortune 500 stocks such as General Electric and AT&T. To avoid ethical conflicts, federal judges generally are supposed to refrain from participating in proceedings in which they have a financial stake.

Under Alaska law, Fabe is required to list shareholder interests valued at more than $1,000, but the value of stocks are not required. In her financial disclosure statement for 2008, Fabe reported interests in companies including Microsoft, Chevron, Johnson & Johnson, and Proctor & Gamble. Income reported included more than $2,350 from GE, nearly $1,550 from Proctor & Gamble and about $1,285 from AT&T.

Concerns also might be raised that Fabe has spent her entire career in government service "rather than experiencing the rant of private practice, seeing what life is like in the real world," said Burke, the former state chief justice. But that perceived limitation is countered, he said, by Fabe's experience as the state's chief public defender, in which she was responsible for hiring, staffing and budget issues.

"She certainly has plenty of what you need upstairs," Burke said. "She has a great respect of the constitution of either the state or the United States."

Among names thought to be under consideration to replace Souter are Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and appellate judges Diane Wood and Kim Wardlaw. Some liberals are urging Obama to name a woman and/or Hispanic to the high court.

Historically, the nation's highest court has been more diversified than it is now, its current members consisting solely of former federal appellate court judges. Feldman, the Anchorage attorney, believes the voices being heard from the court are unduly narrow for that reason and would benefit by adding another background to the mix.

"Dana would be bringing a different range of experience," he said. "She clearly would be up to the job and would make a superb choice."

Rulings with Fabe's imprint in recent years include a 2007 decision that ended a 10-year battle over a state law requiring girls younger than 17 to get a parent's permission to receive an abortion. The majority opinion written by Fabe said the law placed "a burden on minors' fundamental right to privacy." Fabe went on to say, however, that a law requiring parents to be notified would probably be all right.

Gov. Sarah Palin is now supporting an initiative petition aimed at letting voters decide whether doctors should be prohibited from performing abortions for girls under 18 without "notice or consent" from at least one parent.

Off the bench, Fabe initiated a prototype prison prerelease project in 2006 called "Success Inside and Out." The program is sanctioned by the National Association of Women Judges and has led to spinoffs, including a similar effort in Murray's home state of Maryland.

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