A justice system that is impartial and fair to all is not easily achieved, but always worth the effort. Whatever one’s opinion about the selection and retention of Alaska’s judiciary, we should be mindful of the peril of allowing partisan fervor to politicize our judicial system.
I worked a 23-year career as a police officer in Alaska, followed by 11 years of service in the Legislature. Across our great state, I observed Alaskans are marked by strength and weakness, joy and sorrow, gain and loss, and not defined by partisan view. People are just people, and all need help from time to time. Often, this brings them to the courthouse, seeking justice and fair solutions to difficult situations.
As a former member of the Alaska Judicial Council who has interviewed more than 100 judicial applicants, I can attest to the rigor of the application and selection process that occurs prior to being nominated to the governor for final selection. No stone is left unturned in the background investigation, public testimony, candidate interviews, and professional performance evaluations of the candidates.
During my service, the council — composed of three attorney members and three lay, or non-attorney, members — never had a split vote on the decision to forward an applicant’s name to the governor. The closest vote was 4-2, but most were unanimous. Partisanship was never at issue. Professional qualifications and fitness to do the job were what mattered.
Every several years, Alaskans have the constitutional right to vote to retain or not retain our judges. This is an important check and balance between accountability and judicial independence for our judges. The very high retention rates of our judges show Alaskans have repeatedly shown a propensity to vote for the fairness, impartiality and non-partisan stability of our judiciary.
Why is this important? The nightly news in America tells us our democracy is facing existential threats, and state courts will assuredly be a critical line of defense. Judges have been and will likely continue to be called on to stand up to legislators, governors, and even presidents seeking to consolidate their power. When those moments come, courts must not be compromised by political interest, and the public must believe it.
Last month, a leader of an Alaska political party cited as one of his reasons for a constitutional convention the “activities of the court system.” In other words, the judges are not ruling the way he wants. And so people look for scapegoats and control of institutions.
This strikes at the heart of this commentary: We are currently engaged in an ideological culture war with a “winner-take-all” high-stakes mentality embracing the notion that all citizens should not have an equal voice or equal representation under the law. In this conflict, we have abandoned persuasion for demonization and, increasingly, reason for violence.
In February of 2022, the U.S. Marshals Service reported that federal judges alone were the target of more than 4,500 threats in 2021, an increase of more than 400% over five years, attributing the severe judicial security risk to the rise of domestic extremism in America. As our world devolves into a furious competition between closed communities who possess soul-destroying hatred of each other, our judiciary is under attack and anxiously looking over their shoulders.
I hold to a Christian worldview with traditional values. However, I do not support treating democracy, the voices of minorities and the beliefs of others as a zero-sum game. Our free republic absolutely depends on space for pluralistic beliefs to thrive. And it has never worked out well when the church runs the government.
We all have critics. Especially judges, who decide the most contentious issues in society. And in judicial retention elections, aggrieved groups will sometimes last-minute ambush these good men and women who serve us with integrity, slandering them without opportunity to respond.
As we prepare to vote this November, please consider that each year our judges rule on thousands of cases of importance to people’s lives. If you see an attack on a judge, ask yourself — Is he or she being attacked over one ruling? A series of rulings? Was the ruling unpopular, but legally accurate? Did the judge fail to meet his or her professional obligations? What formal, comprehensive performance evaluation has been done of this judge?
You can find current judicial evaluations on the Alaska Judicial Council website. It is worth noting the council unanimously recommended a favorable retention vote for the 29 judges on the ballot this year.
Let me ask you: Do we want to bring to our judiciary the same hyper-politicized outcomes we see in the executive and legislative branches? I pray not. Alaskans need judges to protect the rule of law and the values of our constitutional democracy. Let’s support our judges at the polls this November.
Chuck Kopp is a lifelong Alaskan, a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives and a policy consultant.
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