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The public shouldn't vote blind.
But that's what House Bill 200 is asking them to do.
Right now the law allows for the Alaska Judicial Council to advertise that a judge shouldn't be retained. Alaska voters see a slate of judges on their ballots every other year; they include judges from district, superior, appeals and supreme courts.
HB200 wouldn't allow the Council to recommend against retaining a judge. The public could end up supporting a judge who has any number of professional problems.
The Alaska Judicial Conduct Commission holds judges accountable in terms of ethics.
But that's not enough, not in most of the jobs voters hold, and certainly not in the judiciary. The public also expects judges to display appropriate judicial temperament; for example, simply being polite and patient, and certainly lacking in arrogance. It expects timely decisions, sufficient knowledge of the law, and fairness to both sides of a legal issue and all within the judicial system.
That's where the Council comes in. It receives and investigates reports of any of those possible shortcomings, many of which wouldn't be obvious until an attorney actually became a judge.
The Council can set up an improvement plan for a judge, who likely would respond because, as a last resort, the Council has the authority to recommend to voters that the judge not be retained.
Without the Council acting on the public's behalf, voters wouldn't know without firsthand experience that a judge is unsuitable to serve. Mental health and sexual harassment are examples of the types of concerns on which the Council might base non-retention recommendations.
The Council is the entity that oversees the application process for judicial candidates. It advertises for applicants and conducts interviews, narrowing the field to the most qualified and forwarding a short list to the governor. The governor makes an appointment from that list.
The Council is formed in the most nonpolitical way possible, as established in the state Constitution. The chief justice of the Supreme Court chairs the Council. Three attorney members are selected by their colleagues. The governor appoints three public members.
The terms of service are for six years, with one member rotating off the Council each year. At the most, a governor who serves two terms has the opportunity to fill a maximum of three seats on the Council.
It is important that the judicial system has the respect of the public it serves. The conduct of its judges largely determines that.
To take away the Judicial Council's authority to inform the public in a meaningful way and reduce the checks and balances that hold judges accountable would be an injustice to Alaska.
The House Judiciary Committee will be listening to public testimony on HB200 at 1 p.m. today.