Judge decisions more in lawyers' hands than state's

Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The legal fraternity, made up of lawyers who are members of the Alaska Bar Association, pretty much believes that it is the be-all and end-all when it comes to matters of judicial wisdom. And it particularly considers itself to be the sole proprietor when it comes to the selection of state judges.

Oh, sure, the governor makes the actual appointments to the bench. But his authority to do so, under provisions now in place, is so restricted that his choices are effectively nil. He must choose between two or three nominations submitted to him by the Alaska Judicial Council, a board controlled by lawyers.

In other words, the lawyers — and the lawyers alone — effectively pick the judges before whom they will appear in their professional lives. Not the governor, representing all the people of the state. Not the lay members of the Judicial Council, whose collective power is nothing much when it comes to deciding those worthy of being nominated.

Further, prior to judicial nominations being submitted to the governor by the council, lawyers interested in being considered for a judicial appointment are required to allow members of the bar to measure them on aspects of their professional record.

The measurements are very subjective. For example, does a particular applicant display ''judicial temperament?''

Lawyers can answer that question, and others like it, based on their own personal prejudices. A friend would be rated high when it comes to judicial temperament. A non-friend might get a low score. A Republican might get a poor rating from a liberal-leaning lawyer, and a Democrat might get a less than glowing rating from a conservative lawyer.

In reality, many lawyers actually may have no personal knowledge of individuals seeking appointment.

Ultimately, however, the applicants are rated by the council as ''most qualified,'' ''qualified,'' and ''not qualified.''

Among those deemed ''most qualified,'' the council selects two or three names — usually just two — for submission to the governor for appointment. There may be four or five ''most qualified,'' or seven or eight considered ''qualified,'' who simply get brushed aside.

That effectively takes the choice out of the hands of the governor — whose authority to appoint judges is prescribed in the state constitution. He's at the mercy of the lawyers and the majority members on the council, restricted to acting on just the short list submitted to him.

At the very least, the entire list of those applicants judged to be qualified for judicial service should be placed before the governor.

The constitution obligates the governor to make judicial appointments. But his opportunities to do so should not be restricted to just a couple of persons, among many who may be qualified to serve.

— The Voice of the Times, Anchorage,

Feb. 6

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