Opinions

Babcock shouldn’t be confirmed to Alaska Judicial Council

The Alaska Constitution established the Alaska Judicial Council to serve an essential role in building and maintaining fair and impartial courts throughout Alaska. Our Alaska Constitution commands that appointments to the Council by the governor and the bar association “shall be made with due consideration to area representation and without regard to political affiliation.” Sadly, the governor has taken the unprecedented step of nominating a third public member from Southcentral Alaska and failed to appoint a public member “with due consideration to area representation.” If confirmed, Kristie Babcock from the Kenai would join Dave Parker from the Mat-Su and Lynne Gallant from Anchorage as the third public member of the Council from Southcentral. Now, the Legislature must decide whether to follow our constitution and decline to confirm the governor’s unfortunate nomination.

The Alaska Federation of Natives was the first statewide organization to raise concerns with the nomination of Ms. Babcock to the Judicial Council. By nominating a public member from the urban, primarily non-Native area of the state instead of someone from the rural, primarily Alaska Native area of the state, AFN stated that the “consequences of failing to provide “area representation” could be devastating.” Since receiving the letter from AFN, numerous other groups and individuals have voiced concern with the governor’s unfortunate decision to nominate another person from Southcentral — four people from that region already serve on the seven-member council. The constitution calls on the governor to consider the existing membership on the Judicial Council when making a new nomination, but the governor failed to do so.

Our state constitution establishes seven seats on the Judicial Council: three public members, nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature; three attorney members, appointed by the state bar association; and the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. Since statehood, all prior governors have spread the three public members of the Council among all regions of Alaska. For geographic distribution, we look at three regions of Alaska: Southeast Alaska, which comprises the First Judicial District; Southcentral Alaska, which comprises the most populous Third Judicial District, and Northern and Western Alaska, which comprises the Second and Fourth Judicial Districts.

The minutes of the Alaska Constitutional Convention show the “desire of the committee to have a general geographical representation on the judicial council … that includes all areas of the state.” The framers did not want three attorney members or three public members “from an area like Anchorage.” The framers had a strong, clear vision for maintaining fair and impartial courts, and area representation on the Judicial Council is essential to that vision. While many of us from urban Alaska travel to rural Alaska — places like Adak, Bethel, Circle, Dillingham, Nuiqsut, Tok, St. Paul Island — living in rural Alaska is fundamentally different from living on the road system. The framers wanted those diverse, rural perspectives on the Council.

Recognizing the plain language of the constitution, the state bar association has always appointed the three attorney members from the three different regions. The list of attorney members who have served on the Council throughout our history show that all the three regions are equally represented at any point in time. The historic list of public members includes members from smaller communities across Alaska: Barrow, Homer, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kotzebue, Nome, Petersburg, Seward, Sitka, Valdez and Wasilla have all had public members. This history of diverse nominations highlights the error in the governor’s current nomination.

Never before in Alaska history has a governor tried to concentrate all three appointments into only one geographic region. If the Legislature confirms Ms. Babcock, then five of the seven members of the Council would be from Southcentral Alaska. If one or more of the current public members of the Council were from rural Alaska, then Ms. Babcock might be qualified to serve. But given the Council’s current membership, and because she is from Southcentral Alaska, Ms. Babcock is not qualified to serve.

At a recent hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Ms. Babcock took issue with those who oppose her confirmation. She incorrectly claimed that all of the opposition to her nomination comes from the “private bar” without acknowledging that Alaska’s largest Native organization opposes her confirmation. Ms. Babcock criticized retired judges who — exercising their free speech rights — oppose her confirmation, and she even argued that they are trying to choose the public member. In fact, the retired judges are asking the governor to follow the Alaska Constitution.

Finally, Ms. Babcock improperly referenced Canon 5A of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which only applies only to currently sitting judges and judicial candidates, in calling the opposition to her confirmation “undignified and inappropriate.” Ms. Babcock’s decision to inaccurately attack those who have raised reasonable constitutional issues with her nomination raises concerns about her temperament and fitness for this position.

Confirmation of the governor’s nomination would establish the least geographically diverse Judicial Council in Alaska history. The governor’s nomination is even more difficult to defend because there are countless qualified public member nominations from off the road system.

If the governor fails to withdraw Ms. Babcock’s nomination to the Alaska Judicial Council, the Legislature should not confirm Ms. Babcock.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2014. He has served on the Anchorage Assembly and also as acting mayor of Anchorage.

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