Dispute over judge leading to positive review of system What others say

Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Already, some good has come out of the dispute between Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Alaska Judicial Council over the council's recommendations on who should fill an Anchorage Superior Court vacancy.

The governor last month rejected the list of three names forwarded to him by the council, setting off what some have described as a ''constitutional crisis.'' That's hardly the case, at this point. The governor says he wants to see the council's full list of qualified candidates; the council has declined.

While the standoff between the governor and the judicial council continues -- and enters the court system itself through a lawsuit filed by the Alaska Public Interest Research Group -- the House and Senate judiciary committees of the Alaska Legislature will meet in Anchorage later this month to study whether the judicial selection process needs review.

It might.

The Alaska Constitution is vague on the details of installing a person on either the superior court or the supreme court. The constitution, in Article IV, Section 5, states only that ''The governor shall fill any vacancy in an office of supreme court justice or superior court judge by appointing one of two or more persons nominated by the judicial council.''

But how the judicial council derives that list isn't spelled out in the constitution. No criteria are set forth in the state's guiding document, which does not even say the council must forward the names of those most qualified to serve on the bench.

So what qualifications does the council use? Are the criteria fair and appropriate and being applied in the best interests of Alaskans rather than special interests or ideology? And as for the number of candidates presented to the governor, the constitution has no prohibition on forwarding a more expansive list, as Gov. Frank Murkowski, in this case, would like.

Some argue that the governor has overstepped his authority by rejecting the candidates forwarded by the council. To date, the governor has explained his rejection in a limited fashion by saying he only wants to draw attention to the selection process.

The issue here is not so much the governor's rejection of the nominees but in how those nominees are chosen. The council -- three attorneys appointed by the state bar, three nonattorney members and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court -- makes its selections in an atmosphere largely out of public view. It's time for Alaskans to be reminded about how and why their judges are chosen, and the joint meeting of the legislative panels is a good venue for a little sunshine on the matter.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Sept. 10

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