Judge Wells set to retire from Kenai Superior Court
Kenai Superior Court Judge Jennifer Wells is hanging up her robes after nearly 30 years in the state court system to spend more time with family.
Wells was appointed to the Superior Court in 2017 by Gov. Bill Walker. She’s one of three Superior Court judges in Kenai, a job she said has the broadest jurisdiction of any type of judge on the bench.
"They can handle everything from the traffic ticket to the homicide case," Wells said. "There’s no matter that’s brought before the court to be heard that they can’t hear."
Working as a Superior Court judge is just the latest iteration of her career in the Alaska Court System. For over two decades, she was a magistrate judge, which she said in the court system is like being an "emergency room doctor." Her first magistrate job was in Tok.
"I’m grateful for the fact that I started being a magistrate in Tok," Wells said. "It was a two-person court in a town of 1,000, 200 miles from the nearest movie theater, in the middle of beautiful wilderness. And that was a great place to start."
She said working and socializing in a small town as an early 30-something had its challenges. But she got a real sense of what it meant to be a community’s judge, from marrying residents to processing their paperwork and working as the community’s coroner.
"So you get to be involved with every aspect of people's lives," she said. "And you get a real personal connection to the community that you’re serving."
Then, she moved to Anchorage — "where it was the absolute opposite."
In Anchorage, Wells processed domestic violence protective order cases, as an acting District Court judge. She said there wasn’t that same sense of connection that she got in Tok and she missed handling such a wide array of cases.
"And then, like Goldilocks, moving to Kenai was just the right size," she said.
When a spot opened up on the Superior Court, she applied — mainly, she said, so she could work on the Henu Wellness Court, which had started a year prior to keep substance use cases out of jail. The program takes between 18 and 24 months and is a partnership between the Alaska Court System and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, making it the only joint jurisdiction court in the state.
"I completely love that court," she said. "That is the project of my heart. That’s the reason I don’t want to leave."
In wellness court, parties meet in plainclothes in a conference room and judges take time getting to know the people who appear in front of them for a restorative approach to justice. The process brings in a host of supports from across the community, including the district attorney and treatment providers.
Wells said working in collaboration with the tribe also brings some heart and soul to the process.
"I guess, going back to Tok, where things felt more personal and connected and therefore more meaningful for everyone and maybe more effective — wellness courts have been proven, for a very long time now, to reduce recidivism and help people make meaningful change and meaningful healing," she said.
Wells has also worked as a training judge in Alaska’s Third Judicial District and, early in her career, as an assistant public defender in Kenai and law clerk.
Over the last few months, Wells has taken heat from a vocal group alleging she’s played a role in keeping grand juries from investigating corruption in the court system. Wells said while the opposition has been more public than most, the pushback is part of the job.
"I mean, this job — any judicial job — half the decisions you make are probably going to make someone unhappy," she said. "So to some extent, that comes with the territory, having people unhappy with you for one reason or another."
Wells’ term on the bench isn’t technically up until 2026. But she said, nearing 60, she thinks it’s time to take a step back and spend more time with family, including her dad, who’s suffering from health problems in Massachusetts, where she’s from.
The Alaska Judicial Council is now looking for a new Superior Court judge to take Wells’ place come March.
The seven-member council will field applications from candidates and recommend two to the governor, who will make a final appointment.
Applications for the position are due at 3 p.m. Oct. 14.
Wells hopes whoever succeeds her is also passionate about the work of the wellness court. And she said she’d like to see another woman on the bench.