There's got to be better way to hold Alaska's judges accountable

Posted: Thursday, November 16, 2000

Many Alaska voters in Tuesday's election came away from the polls asking themselves: ''What was that all about?''

Choosing among candidates for president, Congress and the Legislature was a straightforward process and the options easy to understand. Then one got to the six ballot measures and things became murkier. Background information was available on all the measures for those who took the time to read up on them. But the number of voters who had a clear understanding of all six could probably be counted on the fingers of one foot.

Finally, the ballot offered a list of 22 judges who were up for retention. A few on this year's list had a relatively high profile, but most were unknown to the general public. Lawyers, defendants and plaintiffs in court actions undoubtedly knew many of them, but most voters didn't know them from Hogan's goat.

Alaska judges are appointed by the governor from a list of candidates submitted by the Judicial Council, a panel composed of lawyers, non-lawyers and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

After appointment, the name of each judge is placed on the ballot at varying intervals.

The state Constitution requires that judges be retained by a vote of the people, a way of assuring that the judiciary is accountable to the public and not just to those who appointed them or to those inside the legal system.

The intent of the Constitution is clear and valid, but the manner in which that intent is carried out tends to undermine the credibility of the ballot itself. When voters are asked to decide questions whose meaning is obscure and vote on candidates they've never heard of, many may wonder why they bothered to vote at all. That works against voter turnout in future elections.

Simplifying the ballot is always a concern and seems to get appropriate attention from election officials. The one area where there may be a better way is in selection and retention of judges.

Keeping them accountable to the public is essential and should be part of any solution.

The list of possibilities range from direct election of judges in the first place to a new retention review system and term limits. That could entail greater public input at all stages and bypass the present problem. No easy solution comes to mind and major changes would require amending the Constitution, a move of last resort.

But the system is not working well. Loading up the ballot with judicial retention items appears to meet the requirement for public accountability.

But as a practical matter it really doesn't.

-- Voice of The (Anchorage) Times

Nov. 11

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