Voters to decide whether to keep two Juneau judges

Local judge receives lower ratings on attitude, impartiality

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Besides casting their ballots for politicians in the general election Nov. 5, Juneau voters will decide whether to keep Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins and District Judge Peter Froehlich on the local bench.

Juneau voters also will join the statewide electorate in choosing whether to keep Walter Carpeneti of Juneau on the state Supreme Court and David Mannheimer on the state Court of Appeals.

In Alaska, the governor appoints judges from a pool recommended by a panel of attorneys and laypeople. But judges are subject to a citizen vote to retain them every few years.

For more Juneau Empire coverage of the October 1 municipal elections, please visit the Juneau Empire Elections Guide.

The panel, called the Alaska Judicial Council, unanimously recommended the retention of Collins and Froehlich. It also voted to recommend retaining the 14 other judges on ballots this year, said council Executive Director Larry Cohn. The panel hasn't recommended removal of a judge since 1988, he said.

But attorneys surveyed by the council rated Froehlich at 3.5, between acceptable and good, on a scale of 1 to 5. It's the lowest overall score of the nine District Court judges up for retention this year. And defense attorneys continue to remove Froehlich from their cases much more often than happens with other District Court judges, council records show.

Froehlich, 55, a former assistant attorney general, was appointed to the Juneau District Court in 1989 and has been retained by voters in three elections.

District Courts handle state misdemeanors, domestic violence cases, violations of city ordinances, small-claims cases and civil cases seeking smaller damages, and the judges issue arrest and search warrants.

Froehlich is known for caring about youthful offenders, introducing new programs, and occasionally losing his temper in what may be the state's busiest courtroom, observers said.

Nearly a quarter of the 154 surveyed attorneys said Froehlich was deficient or unacceptable in his "courtesy and freedom from arrogance," and one in five said he was deficient or unacceptable in impartiality. Those numbers are two to three times higher than ratings for all but one other District Court judge up for retention this year.

Lawyers exercised their right to remove Froehlich from their cases, a procedure called peremptory challenges, 91 times in 2001. Eighty-nine of those challenges were from defense attorneys.

Even taking into account a workload of about 8,000 cases a year - two to three times what other District Court judges handle - Froehlich has been removed from cases by lawyers at a rate up to nine times that of other judges.

Local attorneys contacted by the Empire declined to comment about Froehlich and other judges up for retention.

Froehlich, in a questionnaire he filled out for the judicial council late last year, said he has been working with other judges to learn "to be softer spoken and more patient and controlled on the bench."

Cohn of the judicial council said Froehlich has benefited from the mentoring of other judges.

"He's aware of the problem and working on it," Cohn said. "So the council was content to recommend him with the hope he'll keep improving."

The percentage of attorneys with substantial experience in his courtroom who rated Froehlich as less than acceptable dropped from about 40 percent in 1998 to 23 percent this year, while the percentage that thought him good or excellent rose from 37 percent to 49 percent.

Froehlich, in an interview, said judicial ethics limits what he can say about his retention. "I believe we should always look for ways to do our jobs better," he did say, referring to innovations in handling cases.

Members of some local social service and health agencies credit Froehlich with pioneering efforts to direct youthful offenders into treatment and education programs, rather than punish them.

Froehlich added a weekly after-school court in 1995 to handle underage drinking and tobacco-smoking cases, and a wellness court in 1999 to offer alternatives to prison for people repeatedly charged with misdemeanors that stem from drinking.

Froehlich is a board member of the Juneau Youth Court and the Boys and Girls Club, and a member of the Juneau mayor's task forces on youth and sobriety.

"Therapeutic courts have been one of the real innovative things Peter's been a sparkplug behind," said Matt Felix, executive director of the Juneau chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

NCADD assesses some youthful offenders and refers them to treatment programs for the courts.

"I've found (Froehlich) to be more than fair and judicious," Felix said. "I think he's truly, sincerely concerned about young people and their use of alcohol and drugs, including tobacco."

Cindy Cashen, executive director of the Juneau chapter of Mothers Against Drunken Driving, said she hasn't heard Froehlich yell at young defendants, but he "has deepened his voice so it sounds a little like thunder so it catches their attention."

Cashen has been a case manager in the wellness court. She said she has attended the Friday afternoon court for young offenders as well.

"He asks a lot of questions. He looks at (the defendant's) file closely. He treats them as individuals," she said. "He lectures them as a father would to a child. Often these youth do not have parents who are acting responsibly. Many times, Judge Froehlich is one of the few healthy role models a youth will see."

Judge Collins, 48, was appointed to Ketchikan District Court in 1995 and Juneau Superior Court in 1999. This is her first retention election as a Superior Court judge.

Superior Courts handle felonies, civil cases seeking larger damages, divorces, cases of abused and neglected children, and appeals from District Court decisions.

The 248 attorneys surveyed gave Collins an overall rating of 4.5, with 53 percent to 82 percent of them giving her the highest ranking of 5.0 in various categories.

"It is, without question, the most difficult job I've ever had," Collins said in an interview. "The decisions that you make dramatically impact people's lives. Except for that rare breed of human who can feel confident you're always correct, you feel lots of self-doubt."

The 470 attorneys surveyed about Justice Carpeneti gave him an overall rating of 4.5, with two-thirds giving him the highest rating of 5.0. Carpeneti, 56, joined the Supreme Court in 1998 after serving as a Juneau Superior Court judge since 1981.

The five-member Supreme Court hears all appeals in civil cases and may choose to hear appeals in criminal cases from decisions of the Court of Appeals.

The 249 attorneys surveyed about Judge Mannheimer, 53, gave him an overall rating of 4.2. He was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1990.

The three-member Court of Appeals hears appeals from judgments in criminal cases and some cases in which a minor is accused of a crime, cases in which prisoners are challenging the legality of their confinement, and cases involving probation and parole decisions.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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