A proposal before the Alaska Senate to change the way judges are chosen in the state is getting some pushback — from the legal profession.
An organization called Justice Not Politics has formed to oppose a constitutional amendment that would give the governor greater power in selecting judges.
Since statehood, judges in Alaska have been screened by the six-member Alaska Judicial Council. The governor appoints 3 members of the public to serve on the Council; the state Bar Association appoints 3 attorneys.
Whenever there’s a vacancy on a superior court bench, the Council takes applications from attorneys around the state, evaluates their qualifications, hears public testimony, and votes on a recommendation to make to the governor.
Heather Arnett, the project director of Justice Not Politics, made her case before the Sitka Rotary Club this week (9-15-15). She said that Alaska’s system produced an independent and fair judiciary, unlike many states where judges were political appointees. She was accompanied by former Juneau superior court judge Larry Weeks.
Here’s an excerpt of his remarks:
And independence of the judiciary, to me, doesn’t mean independence to do what you want. You’re not independent as king. You can’t decide cases necessarily on what you want to have happen. And I regularly made decisions as a judge that, if I were king and making all the rules, I wouldn’t have made. But as a judge you make the decision based on the law that is there, and things that have happened before, not on your personal preferences necessarily. And independence means independence from the political process of deciding because you feel you owe something to someone, or you have a connection to some party that makes it best for you to do that.
Joining the Rotarians were many members of the local Bar. Former public defender Galen Paine is now a private attorney in Sitka. Speaking from the audience, she described some of the flaws she’d observed in states where judges are political appointees.
What Alaska stands out for is a lack of corruption among its judges. You don’t walk into court and think that a decision has already been made against you because of political considerations. Almost everyone I know who’s an attorney in five or six other states, some of them have simply stopped going to court because of the corrupt situation. They know they’re going to lose or to win. It’s just not a fair system.
The constitutional amendment to change the way Alaska picks its judges is sponsored by Sen. Pete Kelly, a Republican from Fairbanks.
Senate Joint Resolution 3 would double the number of members the governor appoints to the Alaska Judicial Council from three to six, while leaving the number of attorneys from the state bar association at three. As a result, political appointees would have a two-to-one majority over members of the bar.
In his sponsor statement for SJR 3, Sen. Kelly says these changes would increase the public’s voice on the Alaska Judicial Council, and bring in more regional diversity to the process of choosing judges.
A number of other organization have joined the state bar association in opposing SJR 3, including the AFL-CIO, and the Alaska Federation of Natives. A full list of documents related to the bill can be found here.