JUNEAU — A former chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court said Wednesday he doesn’t see a need to change the state’s constitution to alter the makeup of the Alaska Judicial Council.
Walter Carpeneti told the House Judiciary Committee the current system has worked well. He said there is a heavy burden on those who want to change the constitution to show that there is a problem, and he doesn’t see one here.
The council’s responsibilities include screening applicants for and nominating to the governor candidates for judicial vacancies. The council also evaluates the performance of judges and recommends to voters whether judges should be retained for another term.
The council is made up of three attorney members chosen by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association and three non-attorney members appointed by the governor and subject to legislative confirmation. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court serves as chair. The council needs to have at least four members in agreement to take action.
HJR33, which is sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee, proposes doubling the number of non-attorney members on the council from three to six. A similar proposal is pending in the Senate.
Supporters say the change would increase the public voice on the council and provide greater balance. In his sponsor statement, Rep. Wes Keller, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the current council membership is “ill-suited to properly meet its constitutional mandate of reflecting Alaska’s diverse geographic and cultural makeup.”
Critics say it could politicize the process by increasing the number of appointees chosen by the governor. Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, has called it a “court-packing” proposal.
The constitution calls for appointments to be made with “due consideration to area representation and without regard to political affiliation.”
Ernest Prax, an aide to Keller, told the committee the proposal is not trying to target or attack the council or the actions of the chief justice but rather is seeking to improve how the council works. He said it is aimed in part at enhancing the council’s credibility in the mind of the general public and protecting the chief justice from “partisan attack” or the appearance of a possible conflict of interest in casting a deciding vote.
The council took more than 1,100 votes on applications for judicial positions between 1984 and 2013, according to information provided to the committee. Of those, there were 15 cases in which the attorney and non-attorney members split and the chief justice broke the tie.
Carpeneti told the committee the facts do not bear out the “generalized claim of attorney dominance” on the panel.
He also said he didn’t understand the conflict argument. He said the chief justice reviews the decisions of judges all the time and it’s not a conflict to vote in favor of the more qualified candidates who apply.
Public comment Wednesday was mixed, with a representative of the Alaska Federation of Natives among those speaking in opposition. A current council member, Dave Parker, and a former state lawmaker and lieutenant governor, Loren Leman, were among those expressing support.
Leman said the council is dominated by members of the Alaska bar.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, said she was trying to keep an open mind about the proposal but wondered if lawmakers should look instead at the process the council follows in making recommendations.