Jon Katchen – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska

Jonathan W. Katchen is President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.  His career has been in natural resources law, both in the private and public sectors.

Background

Jonathan Katchen, 42, lives in Anchorage, Alaska.[1]  He grew up in the affluent town of Gladstone, New Jersey.[2]  He earned his B.A., cum laude, and his M.A., both in Theology, from Boston College in 1998 and 2001, respectively, and his J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 2004.[3]  Katchen worked in Alaska as a Jesuit volunteer before beginning a summer internship in the state during law school.[4]  He clerked for now retired Judge Maryanne Trump Barry of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (President Trump’s older sister) upon graduating law school.[5]

Katchen has served as Special Assistant to Alaska’s former attorney general, Dan Sullivan, and as an Assistant Attorney General in the Oil, Gas & Mining Section.[6]  As Assistant Attorney General, Katchen counseled the Attorney General, Governor, and senior state officials on oil and gas lease disputes, permitting natural resource development on federal lands, and pipeline regulatory issues.[7]

From 2010-12, Katchen served as the Intergovernmental Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, advising senior administration officials and state legislators on natural resource issues and leading the department’s administrative appeals and litigation and providing counsel to the the then-Commissioner, Dan Sullivan.  Sullivan is currently Alaska’s U.S. senator (R).[8]

In 2012, Katchen began working in private practice at the Anchorage office of Crowell & Moring LLP, a large corporate law firm, where he practiced in environmental and natural resources law and regulatory industries.[9]  In 2017, he moved to Holland & Hart, where he currently practices oil and gas law.[10]

History of the Seat 

Katchen has been nominated to a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.  The vacancy opened with Judge Ralph Beistline’s move to senior status on December 31, 2015.  No nomination was put forward to the vacancy during the Obama Administration.

Katchen was one of five names submitted by Alaska’s senators, Sullivan and Murkowski, an unusually large number.[11]  Alaska’s former senator Mark Begich has suggested that the longer list may have been the product of the state’s senator’s disagreeing on who to send forward.  As Murkowski put it, ”We put forth a longer list in an effort to align our priorities.”[12]

Some have criticized Katchen’s nomination as the product of his connections and politics, rather than merit.[13]  Retired Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews, who presided over Alaska’s Anchorage courts, has indicated that Katchen is not qualified for the position: “We should be taking the very best we have, and he may be decent, he may be very good, but he’s not the best we have.”[14]  Katchen ranked 13th out of 20 applicants on the Alaska bar association poll, with 31 percent rating him “extremely qualified” or “well qualified,” compared to 66 percent who gave those ratings to the top applicant, Eric Aarseth, a highly rated state judge since 2005.[15]  As writer Charles Wohlforth noted, “Two law school summer jobs and a clerkship are the extent of [Katchen’s] criminal law experience.”[16]

Legal Career

As outlined above, Katchen’s relatively short career has been primarily in the public sector.  He does not appear as counsel in any published cases on Westlaw.

Katchen was the state’s lead negotiator in a multi-year negotiation over Point Thomson, one of the largest undeveloped oil and gas fields in North America situated in a remote arctic area off of Alaska’s northern coast.[17]  The negotiation revolved around a long-standing dispute between Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Exxon regarding Exxon’s drilling in Point Thomson.[18]  Although Point Thomson holds 8 trillion to 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of millions of barrels of gas and oil liquids, as of 2005 it had never produced oil or gas.[19]  The state of Alaska leases acreage to developers who seek to drill for oil and gas, and Exxon had long held the rights to a significant portion of the Point Thomson acreage.  In 2005, the DNR Director denied as inadequate Exxon’s plan of development for Point Thomson, which led to the state’s revoking their leases to drill, prompting several years of litigation challenging that decision.[20]  The state argued that Exxon was obligated either to produce the liquids and send them down the existing trans-Alaska oil pipeline, or relinquish the leases so they could be auctioned off to another developer.[21]  These legal battles were finally put to rest with the 2012 settlement agreement, negotiated primarily by Katchen, which required Exxon to build a pipeline from Point Thomson to deliver product to the trans-Alaska pipeline and to produce 10,000 barrels per day of natural-gas condensates by the winter of 2015-16.[22]  Point Thomson has been developed since the agreement was finalized and now contributes the agreed-upon 10,000 barrels of product per day, which one commenter called “a major victory for the Alaska economy.”[23]

Katchen has received accolades from Alaska’s former governor, Sean Parnell, and former Attorney General (now U.S. Senator (R)), Dan Sullivan, who describe him as “an extremely competent attorney” and someone who will “make an exceptional jurist who will faithfully apply the law and uphold the Constitution.”[24]  He was named in Chambers USA’s 2015 publication, America’s Leading Lawyers for Business, in the environment, natural resources, and regulatory industries category.[25]

Speeches/ Writings

Katchen has written a handful of opinion pieces for the Anchorage Daily News since 2014.[26]  One such piece responds to Ray Metcalfe, a former Alaska lawmaker, who criticized then Attorney General Dan Sullivan for allegedly not criminally prosecuting Alaska oil giant Bill Allen for child sex crimes.[27]  Katchen explained that Allen was not prosecuted because his abuse of a minor violated only federal (not state) law, and the U.S. Department of Justice would not cross-designate the Alaska Department of Law so as to give Sullivan the authority to prosecute Allen for federal crimes.  “Thus, the only question that needs to be answered is why did Obama administration officials refuse Dan’s request to cross-designate state prosecutors to pursue a federal criminal action against Allen.”[28]

Katchen has also been openly critical of Alaska’s current governor, Bill Walker, for not prioritizing or developing policies that will result in additional oil production through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.[29]  Decline in oil production means decline in the state’s economy, on top of the problems caused Walker’s “erratic” tax reform attempts, which Katchen criticizes as discouraging investors from investing in further developing Alaska’s oil and gas fields.[30]

Katchen authored a 2016 amicus on behalf of Alaska’s congressional delegation submitted in the U.S. Supreme Court case Sturgeon v. Frost, 136 S.Ct. 1061 (2016).  The case arose out of the National Park Service informing an Alaskan hunter that he could not pilot his hovercraft on a particular river.  The hunter filed suit, arguing that federal law limited the Park Service’s jurisdiction to portions of the river owned by the state of Alaska, and that the river where he operated his hovercraft was not state-owned.  The district court and the 9th Circuit rejected this argument, finding the exercise of jurisdiction appropriate.  On his involvement as amicus for appellant’s Supreme Court case, Katchen explained: “Right now, they haven’t done this, but the Park Service has the authority to say to a Native corporation, ‘You can’t build a lodge on your lands. You can’t build a trail. You can’t do berry-picking. You can’t land a plane.’ If the Ninth circuit’s decision in Sturgeon doesn’t get overturned they will have that authority.”[31]  The Supreme Court agreed, reversing the lower courts in a unanimous opinion, holding the Park Service may only regulate “non-public” lands in Alaska according to Alaska-specific laws.

Overall Assessment

Katchen has unimpeachable expertise in natural resources law and has earned the respect of his colleagues.  However, it is unclear how his expertise would translate to the federal judiciary, where judges’ dockets are widely varied and typically center on criminal law (where Katchen’s experience is more limited).

So far, Katchen has strong support from senator Sullivan, while senator Murkowski’s support is unclear.  He has also not yet been rated by the ABA.  As noted above, Katchen’s nomination has received some criticism for his youth and his perceived leapfrogging over more experienced candidates.  However, there is no requirement that a judicial nominee be the “most” qualified candidate in the state.  As there is little public controversy surrounding Katchen’s career and as he has accomplished himself professionally, he will likely be confirmed.


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