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Alaska Supreme Court Speaks Out Against Proposed Change To Judge Selection


March 11, 2014

Alaska’s Supreme Court judges are speaking out against a proposal in the state legislature that would give the governor more power over the committee that determines judgeship appointments. Alaska Court System General Counsel Nancy Meade said the changes, which would add more gubernatorial appointees to the Judicial Council, “has the potential, as others have testified, to change the quality of the judges on the bench.” Currently the committee is made up of three citizen members, and three lawyers appointed by the Alaska Bar, with the state’s chief justice as the seventh member. The change would mean a group consisting mostly of  non-attorney citizens  would have major control of judgeship appointments. .

As Rep. Wes Keller (R), a sponsor of the joint resolution, frames it, the change is necessary because under the current council makeup, Alaska’s Chief Justice must cast a deciding vote in case of a tie. “Should there be, for example, a split vote between the attorney and non-attorney members, and the Chief Justice breaks the tie in favor of the attorney members, he or she is likely to be subjected to partisan accusations of having conflict of interest.” Increasing the number of non-attorneys would reduce the risk of the state’s highest judge coming under “partisan attack.”

The proposal, a state House joint resolution filed Feb. 28, would also amend the state’s constitution to allow the judicial council to act on a majority vote of the members present, rather than a majority vote of the total membership. Keller said the changes were necessary as the council’s membership “is ill-suited to properly meet its constitutional mandate of reflecting Alaska’s diverse geographic and cultural makeup.”

Former Alaska Chief Justice Walter “Bud” Carpeneti has publicly opposed the bill, testifying against it on March 7. Keller said he was “appalled” that the state’s top court was voicing an opinion on a political matter. “The judiciary’s role is to interpret and apply our laws that we write in the Legislature,” he said.  The resolution is set for another hearing March 12.

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