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Which lawyer will Parnell choose as next Alaska Supreme Court justice?

Amanda Coyne

The Alaska Judicial Council has forwarded two candidates to Gov. Sean Parnell for a seat on the Alaska Supreme Court to replace Justice Morgan Christen, who left the court to be appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 

One of the nominees to replace Christen, Andy Harrington, graduated from Harvard University Law School in 1980, and has been an Alaska resident for 32 years. He is currently an assistant attorney general in Fairbanks.

The other is Peter Maassen, who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1980, and has been an Alaska resident more than 30 years. He's currently a partner at Ingaldson, Maassen & Fitzgerald in Anchorage.

Both were rated highly in a survey conducted by their peers, and a gaggle of lawyers from across the political spectrum contacted for this story had good things to say about both. Even they had good things to say about each other.

Under the Alaska Constitution, the Judicial Council -- a six-member panel of lawyers and public representatives -- evaluates judge applicants and sends the governor two or more names for each vacancy. The governor must appoint from this list within 45 days.

Both were the only candidates out of a pool of 12 applicants -- including four sitting judges -- to receive four or more votes from council members. Candidates must receive at least four votes to be submitted to the governor for consideration, said Larry Cohn, executive director of the council.

Three of the voting members are lawyers and the other three are governor appointees. Kathleen Tompkins Miller, wife of failed Alaska U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller, was appointed by former Gov. Sarah Palin, as was another member. The third public representative, Ken Kreitzer, was appointed by Parnell.

Harrington received five out of six votes, with Kreitzer voting against submitting his name to the governor. Maassen received five out of five votes, with one lawyer recusing himself.

Of politics and religion, and religious politics

Parnell, a member of ChangePoint, the largest evangelical non-denominational church in Anchorage, has been known to choose judges who have either conservative or traditional Christian credentials.

Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokesperson, said it's too soon for Parnell to comment on the picks. When asked if religion or party affiliation factors into Parnell's judicial choices, Leighow said that he does not "ask about religion or party affiliation when conducting judicial interviews."

Of the 16 judges Parnell has so far picked for the bench, nine are non-partisan, four are registered Republicans, two are registered Democrats and one belongs to the Alaskan Independence Party. 

Maassen is a registered Democrat and has consistently contributed to Democratic candidates and at least one Democratic-affiliated group, Alaska Conservation Voters. He was also a lawyer for Democratic lawmakers in Troopergate, the infamous, tawdry scandal that marred former Gov. Sarah Palin's half term in office.

Maassen declined to talk about his religious beliefs.

Harrington is registered as non-partisan and has given to both Democratic and at least one Republican candidates. However, he is a former member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and an active member of the Baha’i church in Fairbanks.

Baha'i is a religion that was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in 19th-century Persia. It teaches that all of the great prophets or teachers -- including Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Jesus, and Bahá'u'lláh -- are intermediaries and manifestations of God. To the Baha'i, all religions are one, there is only one God and that the time has come for all humanity to unite and live in peace.

There are about six million Baha'i around the world, and about 1,200 in Alaska, said Gavin Reed, the church's secretary general in Alaska. They are non-denominational and don't get involved in partisan politics. Members however, aren't allowed to get abortions and tend to live traditional lifestyles.

Neither candidate was asked about any of their beliefs during their interviews with Judicial Council members. And both said that neither religion nor party affiliation would affect their performance on the bench.

Harrington said that the Baha'i themselves would be the first to say that beliefs of the Baha'i should not have anything to say about his civic duty.

In any case, Parnell's hands are tied with one or two of these picks.

In 2004, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski balked over the process of judicial selection in Alaska and refused to pick among the three choices given to him for an Anchorage Superior Court judgeship.

Governors had long chafed at the restrictions to pick judges dictated by the state constitution. However, Murkowski was the first to openly defy the council. Eventually he backed down and picked Craig Stowers to the job, who Parnell eventually elevated to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Correction: The original story said that the replacement was for Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti, who is also retiring from the bench. It also misstated by two the number of judges Parnell has appointed. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com