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Alaska Supreme Court in crossfire over how how judges are nominated

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- In a rare political statement, the Alaska Supreme Court has come out against legislative efforts to change Alaska's judicial nomination process. But that political role for the justices has now drawn criticism, too, with one legislator saying he was "appalled" at the court's involvement in politics.

Candidates for judicial appointments are now sent to the governor by the Judicial Council, a group made up of three lawyers appointed by the Alaska Bar and three citizen members appointed by the governor, along with the state's chief justice as the seventh member.

Efforts in the Alaska Legislature are seeking to amend the Alaska Constitution to change that system, including House Joint Resolution 33 in the House. It aims to add additional gubernatorial appointees to the council, potentially changing its makeup and recommendations.

The bills are being pushed by some of the legislature's most conservative members, including Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing, House Joint Resolution 33 was opposed by Alaska Court System General Counsel Nancy Meade. "The resolution has the potential, as others have testified, to change the quality of judges on the bench," she said. Meade said the Supreme Court, which oversees the court system, instructed her to oppose the bill. The appointment process is currently focused on merit and qualifications, but that could shift to politics with the change, she said.

But Judiciary Committee Chair Keller took issue with the court getting involved in politics at all.

"I'm appalled and frustrated," he said, of efforts by the courts to line up opposition to the resolution. Keller's committee is sponsor of the bill, and was the site of the hearing. He said the court system was stepping outside its proper role. "The judiciary's role is to interpret and apply our laws that we write in the Legislature," he said.

He questioned why the justices found the issue of adding more public members "so earth shaking."

The change, said Meade, would mean that six appointees of the governor would be submitting recommendations to the governor. The Supreme Court only gets involved in pending legislation when it has the potential to affect the administration of justice in Alaska, she said.

Former Chief Justice Walter "Bud" Carpeneti, now retired, had already publicly opposed the bill.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com