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Amendment on picking judges still up in air

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- A constitutional amendment that would pack the judge-picking Alaska Judicial Council with political appointees has been teetering on the Senate agenda since Friday, with leaders counting votes to see if they have the 14 needed to pass.

On Friday, the Senate kicked the resolution to the Monday calendar. On Monday, the resolution sat in limbo as the chamber discussed the state operating budget. Over lunch, Republican leaders huddled in Senate President Charlie Huggins' office, then returned to the Senate floor for more budget work. Late in the day, the Senate kicked the amendment forward again -- now it's set for Tuesday, or maybe later, or maybe not this session at all.

The amendment, and a nearly identical one circulating the House, would add three new gubernatorial appointees to the three already appointed to the council by the governor. The Legislature would confirm not only the six named by the governor, but also, for the first time, the three attorney members selected by the state bar.

The final member of the council would remain unchanged -- the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, who serves ex-officio.

The bills are the work mainly of the Legislature's conservative wing and supported by advocacy groups like Alaska Family Action. They've been unhappy for a long time with decisions of the courts on abortion and other social issues. And they say attorneys have too much say in the selection of judges.

Opponents are primarily moderate Republicans and Democrats, who say the current merit-based system has ensured an independent judiciary even as one-party rule has taken over in Juneau. A resolution opposing the amendments by the Alaska Federation of Natives said the under the current system, "Alaska's judiciary has been free of corruption, scandal, and other ills that have plagued other non-merit based systems."

Byron Mallott, the Democratic candidate for governor, said supporters of the amendment "to reshape the judiciary into an ideological rubber stamp of government actions."

Jim Minnery of Alaska Family Action said in a blog post that the amendment "would fundamentally transform the Council from a panel dominated by legal elites into a panel dominated by non-attorney citizens."

The Senate bill, Senate Joint Resolution 21, was introduced by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and is co-sponsored by Sens. Cathy Giessel and Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla. The House measure, House Joint Resolution 33, emerged as a Judiciary Committee bill, where it was supported by Judiciary Chairman Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, and Vice Chairman Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage.

Sen. Click Bishop, a moderate Fairbanks Republican whose vote was being sought by supporters of the amendment, said Monday the Alaska Constitution has served the state well as written. While he said he would rather see more rural members on the council, he didn't believe a constitutional amendment was the way to achieve that goal.

The council reviews the qualifications of applicants for judgeships and forwards at least two nominees to the governor when there's a vacany. It is also charged with reporting on the administration of justice in Alaska and sending its findings to the Supreme Court and Legislature every two years.

A constitutional amendment requires a super majority of 14 in the Senate and 27 in the House before it goes to ratification vote by Alaskans during a statewide election.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com