Opinions

Alaska’s judicial selection system works. Don’t believe the divisive rhetoric.

Alaska is a special place. Whether you were born here or moved here, whether you live in a city or off the road system, whatever your race and ethnicity, we are all Alaskans. We share an interest in protecting what makes Alaska unique.

One of the things that makes Alaska unlike other states is our independent, nonpartisan judicial selection system. For decades we’ve avoided the nasty political food fights that happen with the courts in other states.

Until now.

As former members of the Alaska Judicial Council, or AJC, we have more than 12 years of experience in identifying the most qualified Alaskans to serve as judges. We are not attorneys, just concerned citizens who care deeply about our courts. Here is what we learned in our time serving on the council:

• Members of the AJC go through a comprehensive process to identify the most qualified Alaska attorneys to serve as judges.

• Qualifications include professional competence, diligence and administrative skills, integrity, fairness, temperament, judgment (including common sense), legal and life experience, and demonstrated commitment to public service.

• The judicial nomination system created by Article 4 of our state constitution requires the AJC to forward the most qualified candidates to the governor, who chooses judges from among them.

This system is designed to ensure that our judges are uniquely qualified to read, interpret and apply Alaska law fairly and impartially in every region and community of our diverse state, without consideration of politics or influence from politicians.

Unfortunately, the AJC has taken a disturbing turn since the governor appointed Kristie Babcock, the wife of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff, as a member. The council met last month to evaluate seven applicants for a seat on the Alaska Supreme Court. When the chief justice cast a tie-breaking vote that resulted in one candidate’s name not being forwarded to the governor, Babcock expressed outrage and revoked her previous votes in favor of three candidates. She then issued an op-ed full of misrepresentations, accusing the chief justice and fellow council members of racism and bias against rural Alaskans. This is particularly egregious, since the individuals against which her accusations were directed collectively have decades of experience living and working in rural Alaska. They care very deeply about all Alaskans, and this is reflected in their votes.

Babcock’s temper tantrum is unprecedented in the history of the AJC, which is notable for its consensus on mission and collegiality between members. Split votes are exceedingly rare, and we have never seen a public rebuke via the press from a council member, attacking their fellow public servants on the council and the bench. We question her motivation. It appears that she is seeking to convince Alaskans that the independent Alaska Judicial Council, which carefully balances the expertise and experience of lawyers and the chief justice with the perspectives of other Alaskans appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, should instead be under the full control of professional politicians.

This is dangerous territory.

We know what that type of judicial selection system looks like, because we see it at work in states that elect their judges, or give politicians control of the judicial selection process. It results in judges who elevate their own political agendas and those of the politicians that appoint them above their responsibility to deliver impartial justice under state law. It also creates financial incentives for judges to stay on the right side of politicians, so they can keep their jobs. That’s the system that Babcock apparently wants, and she’s willing to destroy the system we have and the reputations of those who maintain it to get her way.

Ensuring that our judges reflect the racial and geographic diversity of our state is important. As women of color who have spent our lives and careers working for racial justice in Alaska, we don’t need a lecture from Kristie Babcock on how to achieve it. If Ms. Babcock is unable to participate in the AJC process respectfully, without airing her disagreements publicly and resorting to name-calling, she should do Alaskans a favor and step down.

There is nothing more important to protecting the interests of all Alaskans, including but not limited to rural Alaskans, Alaska Natives and other people of color, than ensuring that our judges are selected based on their qualifications, and appointed without regard to their politics. Our system works. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Eleanor Andrews served on the Alaska Judicial Council from 2000 to 2007. Loretta Bullard served on the AJC from 2015 to 2021, until Gov. Dunleavy replaced her with Kristie Babcock.

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