Homer welcomes its first Superior Court judge

After years of bringing in traveling judges to hear felony cases, Homer has its own superior court judge, and she’s excited to get to work.

Bride Seifert, most recently an assistant district attorney in Kotzebue, was appointed to be Homer’s first superior court judge in December after being nominated along with two others for the position by the Alaska Judicial Council. Seifert applied for open judge seats in Homer and Palmer.

Homer and Valdez were the last two major communities in Alaska that lacked a superior court judgeship until Senate Bill 41 was passed and enacted in 2019 to establish them. Until now, superior court judges from Kenai and sometimes Anchorage traveled down to Homer to handle superior court cases like felony crimes.

Seifert got a chance to meet some members of the community, including law enforcement officials and others who work closely with the court system, during an open house hosted by the Kenai Bar Association last Thursday at the Homer Courthouse. Also addressing the people gathered there was Magistrate Judge Suzanne Cole of Anchorage, who has been filling in to hear cases since the retirement of Judge Margaret Murphy last year. Previous judges who have been appointed to Homer are Judge Frances Neville and Judge James Hornaday.

Born and raised in Ohio, Seifert attended college there before going to graduate school in Minnesota. She graduated from Mitchell Hamline School of Law‎ in Minnesota in 2010. She moved to Alaska in 2011 (though her first job in the state was a summer stint in McCarthy in 1996) and began clerking in Juneau. Seifert then became an assistant attorney general, also in Juneau.

Seifert was an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings from 2012-2018. That’s when she moved to the other side of the bench and became a prosecutor, working in Bethel and Kotzebue. Seifert said she knew that she’d need the experience in criminal law, in prosecuting and arguing in front of a judge if she wanted to become a judicial officer.

“I really enjoyed the role of professional-neutral,” she said of her time as an administrative law judge. “I think it was a good fit for me. I’ve been told that by others that have worked for me. I wanted to be a prosecutor because I wanted to see how I liked trial, how I liked being in a courtroom.”

Seifert said these are things any district or superior court judge would come across serving on a mixed bench and hearing both criminal and civil cases.

“It was really, is that going to be the right role for me?” she said. “And I felt like I needed to be more steeped in that world if I was going to take on this kind of responsibility.”

Homer’s court is now transitioning from a district court to a combined district and superior court.

In larger courts with higher case volumes, like the Kenai Court, there are magistrates and district court judges to hear less serious cases and superior court judges to hear felony cases. In Homer, the plan is for Seifert to hear all cases, though she said there’s a possibility of getting help from another judge in certain instances down the line.

What this transition means for now is that Seifert and the clerks in the Homer Court will be learning how to handle both district and superior court cases. Boxes and boxes of superior court case files are on their way down from Kenai, where they have been kept until now, Seifert said.

Having a superior court in Homer also means that, unless there’s an extenuating circumstance, a Homer judge will be hearing felony cases and presiding over felony trials, rather than a judge from Kenai or Anchorage. Seifert said she sees that at a positive step for the community.

“I’m really excited about the job because I think it’s a new position,” she said. “Both Valdez and Homer are these combined superior court and district court judgeships. So any time you have the opportunity to be the first in this type of role, there’s a lot of learning that happens and there’s a lot of opportunity to try to make it a position that works really well for the people of Alaska.”

There could also potentially be some cost savings realized in the long run, Seifert said, since the court system will no longer have to pay for travel and lodging to send judges down to Homer.

Other than making her position a successful one, Seifert said she has a few goals or areas she’d like to explore as the judge in Homer. One of them is bringing more mediation practices into the courtroom to be used in addition to the traditional system. She has a background in mediation and said she’s seen how it can benefit people going through the justice system, especially when they have an ongoing issue or the case involves ongoing relationships.

Seifert referenced the Henu Wellness Court, a joint state and tribal court in Kenai that gives certain people charged with addiction or substance abuse-related crimes the option to go through an intensive joint court program that focuses on mediation, healing and recovery.

“When I was in the AG’s (Attorney General’s) office as a civil attorney, I worked hard to expand the mediation program with my boss,” Seifer said. “So that, especially in cases where … there’s ongoing relationships, whether it’s alternative dispute resolution or an alternate to a full blown civil trial, I think it can preserve relationships and be good for the parties.”

Seifert said she’d like to explore a way to form some variation of a wellness court in Homer. In a more general vein, she wants to make the Homer Court less daunting for the people who come through it.

Walking into a courtroom can be stressful, and while courts perform marriages and adoptions, people are often there for less happy reasons. Seifert said she wants to make the process as positive as it can be for people in Homer. She specifically thanked all jurors who serve in the area, noting that they are an integral part of Alaska’s justice system.

While Seifert has not lived in Homer before, she first visited back in 1996 or ‘97, she said, and has visited many times since then. She’s enjoyed the people she’s met and has taken trips across Kachemak Bay.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” she said.

Seifert’s husband will be moving up from Juneau to join her.

“We’ve been thrilled to just be in the beauty of the community, both physically and the people we’ve just met, whether it’s in the restaurant or walking through town,” she said. “It seems like a community that cares deeply about what’s happening.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Kenai Bar Association. A previous version of this story referred to it incorrectly.

Bride Seifert, Homer’s first Superior Court judge, speaks to members of law enforcement at an open house Thursday, March 5, 2020 at the Homer Court in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

Bride Seifert, Homer’s first Superior Court judge, speaks to members of law enforcement at an open house Thursday, March 5, 2020 at the Homer Court in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)

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