What others say: Bill changing judicial nomination process doesn’t make sense

  • Tuesday, March 31, 2015 2:32pm
  • Opinion

Alaska has one of, if not the, best judicial selection processes.

The proof is in the lack of newspaper headlines heralding corruption in the judiciary branch of government.

The judiciary interprets Alaska’s laws; the state Legislature makes the laws.

Sen. Pete Kelley, R-Fairbanks, is trying to change the law pertaining to the merit-based selection of the Alaska Judicial Council, which through interviews narrows the field of candidates for a judicial position and forwards the names of the most qualified to the governor for final selection and appointment.

The council has seven members, including the chair, all Alaskans. The Alaska Bar Association selects three attorney members, who provide the council with the invaluable perspective of the applicants’ professional colleagues. The governor selects three non-attorney members. While most of the members come from the most populated places, it is the governor’s prerogative to appoint an Alaskan living anywhere in the state. The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court chairs the council votes only in the case of a tie.

Kelley contends the council should be larger to include a wider diversity of Alaskans and large enough to remove the chair’s tie-breaking vote.

He also says that attorneys serving on the council should be approved by the Legislature.

To increase the council’s size would increase state government expenses, which the Legislature is trying to reduce. The council conducts interviews in the community where a judicial opening occurs. This entails travel, lodging and meals for council staff and members.

Council size also dictates the length of each meeting. A six-member council can conduct a certain number of interviews and discussions in one day. If the number of council members is increased by a third, then the length of meetings likely would need to be extended. That would involve increased expenses not only as a result of additional members, but for all other members. Plus, one-day meetings haven’t been the norm; meetings can take the better part of a week, particularly if a member has to factor in travel from Ketchikan to Barrow and back home or some similarly divided locales.

This is time volunteered by Alaskans, who cannot be at their own jobs when they are conducting council business.

Meanwhile, council statistics show that tie votes aren’t prevalent enough to be a serious concern. Of 1,149 council votes as to whether to forward an applicant’s name to the governor, only 16 resulted in ties. The chief justice at those times voted against forwarding a name on only nine occasions.

When it comes to requiring legislative confirmation of attorney members, an idea favored by Kelley, such confirmations would increase the likelihood of political appointments to the council. Alaska benefits most from a non-political judiciary.

With the Alaska Bar selecting attorney members, it takes the selection out of the political realm and places it with one with the most to gain by upholding a politically untainted judiciary. Whether attorneys tend to be liberal or conservative, their careers and profession suffer the consequences of inept or political judicial decisions. They, as a group, want the best of the best occupying the bench and deciding and overseeing their cases.

Alaska has one of the least politicized judicial selection processes. It’s emulated by at least 34 other states, and it has served Alaska well as the lack of headlines regarding its conduct reflect. No one says it is perfect, but it is the closest Alaska can come.

It doesn’t make sense to change what is working well for Alaskans.

— Ketchikan Daily News, March 28

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