As a former public member of the Alaska Judicial Council, I take issue with current efforts in the Legislature -- through SJR 21 and HJR 33 -- to change Alaska's constitutional framework for selecting judges. The current council -- with three public members appointed by the governor, three attorneys appointed by the Alaska Bar Association, and the Chief Justice -- is the backbone of a judicial selection system that is recognized nationally and internationally as one of the best. Adding three more politically appointed public members to the council will dramatically alter its composition with no guarantee of greater geographic balance or ethnic diversity in its membership.
For many years, Alaska Natives from across the state were routinely among those appointed to the council. Mary Jane Fate, an Athabascan from Fairbanks, was appointed by Gov. Jay Hammond and served from 1981-1987. Leona Okakok, an Inupiat from Barrow, was appointed by Gov. Steve Cowper and served from 1987-1993. Gigi Pilcher, a Native American from Ketchikan, was appointed by Gov. Tony Knowles and served from 2000-2005. An Athabascan originally from McGrath, I was appointed by Gov. Tony Knowles and served from 1995-2000. I was followed by Eleanor Andrews, an African-American business owner from Anchorage.
As this history illustrates, the governor already has the power to appoint council members who are more geographically balanced and ethnically diverse. That no recent governor has appointed a rural resident or ethnic minority is no fault of our current judicial selection process. Nothing in the proposed constitutional amendment would change the recent pattern of excluding Alaska Natives and other racial and ethnic minorities from the important role they once played in the selection of our state's judges. If our political leaders truly wish to broaden representation on the council and ensure that future appointments reflect the diversity of Alaska's people, they should aim pressure where it belongs: on the governor, not on the constitution.
During my years on the council, I was privileged to work with fine attorneys and public members who brought a wealth of life experience and expertise to the task of evaluating candidates for judgeships. We came from different backgrounds, and we offered different perspectives, but we always worked together with mutual respect toward the goal of nominating only the most highly qualified candidates. Sometimes we disagreed, but more often the finest candidates were readily apparent and consensus was achieved.
As a nonlawyer, I never felt pressured or intimidated by the lawyers on the council. And I do not remember decisions breaking down along lawyer/nonlawyer lines. If the recent appointees claim that a few votes out of scores of votes in very recent times have broken down along attorney/appointee lines, one might look to the pattern of recent appointments that has effectively kept diverse viewpoints from the table.
Diversity on the Alaska Judicial Council fosters diversity in the judiciary itself. Both should be aspirations if Alaska truly wants our governmental institutions to reflect the rich ethnic fabric of our people. There is much we can do to advance these goals, and several initiatives are already in the works. Outreach programs to encourage rural and minority young Alaskans to pursue legal and judicial careers have been in place for over a decade, plans to improve access to law school in the state are well underway, and efforts to encourage qualified judicial applicants from groups traditionally under-represented in our judiciary are making a difference.
In contrast to concrete actions like these, amending the constitution will do nothing to increase representation and diversity in our justice institutions. It will only make it easier for political leaders to ensure the dominance of their own views in the judicial selection process, however unrepresentative they may be. I urge lawmakers to protect the balance that exists in our current system and reject SJR 21 and HJR 33
Vikki Otte is a former member of the Alaska Judicial Council.
By VICKI OTTE