What others say: Need for change to Judicial Council hasn't been demonstrated

The Alaska Legislature has two weeks remaining in its second session. This is the time when Alaskans need to pay particular attention to controversial measures getting inadequate attention and being passed in the final days as part of some behind-the-scenes deal-making.

This isn’t something that happens just in Alaska’s capital, of course. It’s standard fare in politics.

Take the idea by Sen. Pete Kelly to revamp the makeup of the Alaska Judicial Council, the panel that screens candidates for judicial vacancies and forwards names to the governor for selection. The Alaska Constitution specifies the council’s role and requires the governor to choose a nominee from the list given by the council.

Sen. Kelly, with his Senate Joint Resolution 21, proposes a constitutional amendment to double the number of non-attorney members the governor would appoint to the council to six. The Alaska Bar Association would continue to select three attorney members, as required under the Constitution. However, all members — attorney and non-attorney — would be subject to confirmation by the Legislature under SJR 21. The Constitution now only requires confirmation of the three non-attorney members.

This would, if approved by voters, be a major change in how Alaska fills its judicial vacancies and would give the governor and the Legislature much greater influence over the council than what the Constitution presently allows.

Retired Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti, in written testimony about SJR 21, sees no need for change. He points out that from 1984 to 2013, the period for which data is available, the attorney members and the non-attorney members voted in opposing blocs only 15 times in 1,136 votes. “There is no statistical basis to presume that the lawyers somehow dominate the process,” he said.

The current system, the former chief justice wrote, “helped produced a judiciary that throughout Alaska’s statehood has been free of corruption, scandal, judicial intemperance, and the other ills that have been produced by selection systems not based on merit.”

The judicial system, whether in Alaska, another state, or at the federal level, is one of those places where partisan politics are at their fiercest. Republicans and Democrats try to gain an edge in the appointment of like-minded people to the courts.

That’s the reality.

The Senate could pass the measure today, but it would then need to get through the House.

Having just two weeks left in the legislative session isn’t enough time for the House to consider this fully to show Alaskans that there is clearly a need for change — and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious need.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

April 7

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