Yesterday, Governor Sarah Palin announced the appointment of Anchorage Superior Court Judge Morgan Christen to the high court in Alaska. Judge Christen will be just the second woman named to the high court in the 50 years since statehood. Some will emphasize the Sarah Palin angle of this story, because of differences between Christen's social values and Palin's. But to me, that is not the big part of the story. The big part of the story is that even in a state with a relatively small population, there was a woman jurist about whom any Governor, regardless of her or his own ideology, could say would make an outstanding state Supreme Court judge.
"Alaska's Supreme Court bears the awesome responsibility of ensuring that our court system administers justice in firm accordance with the principles laid down in our state Constitution," Palin said in a written statement. "I have every confidence that Judge Christen has the experience, intellect, wisdom and character to be an outstanding Supreme Court justice." (emphases mine)
Alaska, like most states, has a procedure by which it produces a set of candidates from whom the Governor may select a high court judge - in other words, there are are checks on the Governor's choices. Under the state Constitution, Palin had to select from among the nominees sent to her by the seven-member Alaska Judicial Council. To get on the map of such a Council a judge has to have demonstrated professional excellence and, usually, shown involvement in the community more generally.
Judge Christen fits that bill based on the public write-ups I could find readily. This one comes from an Alaskan philanthropic foundation whose board she sits, the Rasmuson Foundation:
Judge Morgan Christen was appointed to the superior court in Anchorage in 2001. In 2005, she was appointed Presiding Judge for the Third Judicial District. Judge Christen currently co-chairs both the Child in Need of Aid Committee and the Probate Rules Subcommittee for Involuntary Mental Health Commitments. She serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Community Foundation.
Prior to being appointed to the bench, Judge Christen was a litigation partner at the law firm of Preston, Gates & Ellis from 1992-2001. She worked as an associate attorney at Preston from 1987-1992. Judge Christen clerked for the Honorable Brian Shortell after she graduated from the Golden Gate University School of Law and received her undergraduate degree in international studies from the University of Washington.
Judge Christen's previous professional experience includes service as a Lawyer Representative for the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, service on the Alaska Bar Association Disciplinary Committee and as President of the Anchorage Association of Women Lawyers. Judge Christen has been a member of the Anchorage Rotary Club since 1994 and is a former member of the Board of Directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska. In 2004, Judge Christen, was awarded the Light of Hope award for work on behalf of Alaska's children, and the Chamber of Commerce Athena Society Award. In 2004, Judge Christen and her husband, Jim Torgerson, received the Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Alaska Chapter. Her special interests include family, hiking, traveling in Alaska, reading and cooking.
While this bio demonstrates that Judge Christen has been active and involved in both the judiciary and broader Alaskan civic activities, what I, as a lawyer and law professor, find most striking about it is, in some respects, its essential ordinariness in terms of the credentials one would expect a state high court appointee to have. This in no way detracts from Judge Christen, who has clearly worked hard to extend her reach outside the four walls of courtroom, both to influence and to learn about her state and its different demographic sectors. This is exactly what we should want from jurists - people with competence in the courtroom in and interest in goings-on outside of it. So I applaud Judge Christen's decisions to get to know both the Rotary Club AND the Anchorage Association of American Lawyers; to have worked on behalf of children and on behalf of Alaska's business community. She will be deciding cases involving interests related to all kinds of Alaskans and this brief biographical sketch indicates that she's taken the time to get to know a cross-section of the citizenry.
Now it happens that Judge Christen, in the 1990s, was on the board of Planned Parenthood. And a conservative Christian group, the Alaska Family Council, decided to apply pressure to Governor Palin to get her not to appoint Judge Christen to the Supreme Court. This is what the Alaska Daily News seems to find most noteworthy, or at least most newsworthy, about Judge Christen's appoint. (The paper's headline: Palin bucks pressure in Supreme Court appointment; Selection went against push from Alaska Family Council.)
But the real news here is that a sitting Governor simply picked an apparently competent jurist with a range of ties to the state's community and that the Governor and the judge are both women, and both women are in the positions they are in by virtue of fairly ordinary career paths, career paths that have, however, led each to some fairly extraordinary positions.
Cross-posted at Heidi Li on Equality at 51 Percent.