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We oppose revising the Alaska Constitution to alter the makeup of the Alaska Judicial Council.
Such a revision would result in politicizing the Council, complicating logistics and increasing the cost of government.
The Council is chaired by the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court and made up of three attorneys and three lay members. The Alaska Bar Association comes up with the attorney candidates, who ultimately are appointed by the governor. The governor, who is elected by the public, of course, also appoints the non-attorney members.
The Council membership rotates, with one seat up for appointment each year. A governor would have to serve at least six years to be responsible for appointing all members of the Council. If Alaska's voters give a governor that responsibility, then so be it.
The Council's job is to meet whenever a judicial vacancy occurs, interview candidates, listen to public testimony (most often in the community where the vacancy occurs) and select at least two applicants whose names are forwarded to the governor. The governor makes the appointment.
Then, the public votes on whether to retain the new judge at the next state election. For the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, the judges appear on a statewide ballot. Superior and District court judges are on the ballots in their election districts.
The Council operates with grace, cordiality, common sense and professionalism, each member intent on advancing the names of the best legal minds into and upward in the judicial system.
State Senate committees currently are considering Senate Joint Resolution 21, which would add members to the Council, if it passes the Legislature and is approved by voters in the next statewide election.
Originally, the resolution called for 16 additional members; at present, only three non-attorney positions are being considered.
This would create an imbalance on the Council, giving the non-attorneys a super majority.
The best argument we've heard against this is that the attorneys provide the legal expertise necessary to determine whether a lawyer is qualified to be a judge. We want that knowledge on the Council and we want it to be on par with non-attorney experience. Attorneys should be integral to deciding on who should be judges, just as doctors serving on hospital boards should be listened to when hiring surgeons, and architects' comments should be given considerable weight when planning to build a high-rise. Expertise is invaluable.
But it isn't everything, and that's why the authors of Alaska's constitution included lay members, who offer a variety of expertise from other professions. Most often the non-attorney members operate their own businesses or have served in government leadership positions. Governors have appointed non-attorney members from Fairbanks, Anchorage, Wasilla, Juneau, and even Ketchikan through the years. Nothing prevents the governor from making appointments from any community in the state. If other communities or regions of the state wish to be involved, the best way is to encourage gubernatorial appointments of lay members from those areas. That doesn't require changing the Constitution.
Both attorneys and non-attorneys vote their own conscience. The chief justice votes only in the case of a tie, which is rare. Most of the time, in the case of split votes, the division includes attorneys and non-attorneys on both sides.
To mess with the ratio of attorneys and non-attorneys on the Council would increase the likelihood of less-qualified attorneys becoming judges. It also would give a governor the power through the lay-member appointees to control the Council, bringing politics into a process that the Constitution's writers did everything possible to avoid. Politics don't belong in the courts. Judges interpret the laws that the Legislature creates. The Legislature sets the values of the state through its legislation. The checks and balances are in place for the three government branches.
Finally, with the addition of each new member, the logistics of moving a greater number of members around the state becomes more complicated. It's one thing to mesh the schedules of six private citizens; it's another to coordinate eight, nine, 10 or whatever other higher number.
Not only that, but the expense increases. The Council usually meets at least four times a year and has met as many as 10 times annually. For a member from Ketchikan, that most often involves a round-trip flight to Anchorage and perhaps beyond, depending on where a vacancy occurs. It also includes hotels and other expenses. A trip cannot be accomplished for less than $1,000. That's one trip for one member. State spending would have to be increased to cover the cost associated with each additional member of the Council.
In these economic times, that isn't the avenue to be taken.
It isn't surprising that the Legislature has been encouraged to change the makeup of the Council. Judicial applicants and the recipients of court opinions aren't always pleased with the outcome. We can't say we've always liked or fully understood a judge's ruling.
We are certain we'd have less confidence in what is now a fine justice system if the makeup of the Council responsible for recommending judicial applicants would be changed.
The Council works well as it is; let's leave it that way.