House rejects constitutional amendment restricting judges

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2000

JUNEAU -- By one vote, the state House has rejected a proposal to bar judges from changing proposed constitutional amendments.

State representatives voted 26-14 in favor of the Senate Joint Resolution 27, one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to put proposed constitutional amendments before voters.

All 13 members of the Democrat minority opposed the measure. They were joined by Rep. Pete Kott, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The measure would have let voters decide whether judges should be restricted from making two kinds of changes to constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature.

Judges would have been prohibited from rejecting single-subject proposed revisions to the constitution. Also, judges would have been prohibited from altering the wording of proposed amendments.

Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, sponsored the proposal and 10 senators joined him as cosponsors.

He filed the measure followed a ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court two years ago that tossed an amendment he proposed off the ballot. The court ruled that Donley's proposal to limit the rights of prisoners was a revision of the constitution, not simply an amendment. The constitution can only be revised by a constitutional convention.

In the same decision, the court changed the wording of a different constitutional amendment aimed at banning same-sex marriage in Alaska. That measure stayed on the ballot and passed easily.

Donley said the court's action was an intrusion on the Legislature's power that upsets the balance of power between branches of government. He also said the ruling likely would have invalidated some previous amendments approved by voters, including the right to privacy.

Supporters Thursday said the court ruling has left confusion over the difference between a revision and an amendment and that judges have substituted their judgment for the desires of the Legislature and the public.

''What we have before us is a cloud,'' said Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage.

Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage, said there is no predictability on whether proposals are revisions or amendments. She said the court ruling was poorly considered.

''We're living with the consequences,'' Murkowski said.

But Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said lawmakers were reading too much into the court ruling.

''If it's too big a deal, then it's a revision,'' Berkowitz said. ''If it's narrowly tailored, then it's an amendment.''

He called the section that would ban the court from tossing out ''single-subject revisions'' a child of ignorance and retaliation. If a court throws out an amendment, Berkowitz said, the fault is not with the constitution but with legislators.

Kott, R-Eagle River, said after the vote that he voted no because of the section dealing with revisions. He also said he had made a commitment to a member of the Constitutional Convention, whom he did not name, to oppose the measure unless the section on single-subject revisions was dropped.

Rep. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, asked that his vote be reconsidered and the measure could come up on the floor again Friday.

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