Alaskans have very little say in who the judges are in their courts. Judges in Alaska aren’t elected. They aren’t appointed like other people to powerful positions in this state. They aren’t confirmed by the lawmakers in Juneau like the people who set gas rates or run state departments. Judges in this state are effectively picked by a group called the Judicial Council.
That group, made up mostly of lawyers, including the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, decides who the governor can choose from when there is an opening judgeship. The lawyers on the Judicial Council aren’t appointed like other people to powerful positions in Alaska. The lawyers on the Judicial council are not confirmed by the lawmakers in Juneau. Only three of the seven members of this powerful organization go before the peoples’ representatives to be placed in their seats, and they are all the nonlawyers.
This still isn’t enough for members of the Alaska Bar Association. Rep. Matt Claman, a lawyer who chairs the judiciary committee in the State House, publicly voiced opposition to one of these people: a woman from Soldotna named Kristie Babcock. There is nothing in her character that disqualifies her. She has a stellar reputation as a small business owner and civically engaged mother. There is nothing in law or the constitution that bars her from taking the seat.
So, what is the argument that lawyers like Rep. Claman are using to urge lawmakers to vote no on Kristie? Supposedly, because she is from the Kenai Peninsula, Kristie would also be from Southcentral Alaska, like the two other public members on the Judicial Council, and therefore violates the “spirit” of the requirement that members be from geographically diverse parts of the state. To folks in Kenai, Soldotna, Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Sterling, it feels rich being lumped in with Anchorage. Culturally, politically, economically and geographically, our regions are very different. The Kenai Peninsula is the size of West Virginia. We are more than a hundred miles’ drive from the large metropolitan areas of Alaska. We have subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fishers in our waters. We have farmers, tribal lands, Alaska Native Corporation lands within our boundaries. We have first-class cities and first-class people in unincorporated settlements.
The rub here is that, to a lot of us on the Kenai, the use of “geographic representation” feels like a smokescreen. Is it a coincidence that retired judges and lawyers are calling in opposing Kristie the very year, in fact the very month, there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court? And who, specifically, is leaving the high court? Why, the outgoing Chief Justice, who sits on the very council to which Kristie is appointed. We might take things slow down here, but we weren’t born yesterday.
Let’s cut to the chase: Kristie Babcock is a good citizen of this state. She is intelligent and articulate. There has never been a woman from the Kenai who has had the opportunity to represent us in this fashion. To the people in Juneau who will be voting on her confirmation, we say: Do not fall for these smokescreens. The lawyers have enough power and little oversight. If they want specific representation, ask the Alaska Bar Association to try it on. Until then, give the residents of the Kenai Peninsula a chance to be heard.
Charlie Pierce is the mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
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