New bill targets Alaska’s process for appointing district and appeals court judges

Published: Feb. 16, 2021 at 6:56 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - During the ongoing legislative session, lawmakers could hold talks about altering the rules that provide a path for attorneys to become judges in Alaska. A bill authored by Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, would eliminate the current requirement that district and appellate court openings be filled with candidates from a list of Alaska Judicial Council nominees.

Nancy Meade, who serves as general counsel for the Alaska Court System, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday. She told lawmakers that the current system works and Senate Bill 14 would make politics a key factor in seating judges.

“There’s no substitute for this and the court system really does not see a point in changing it,” she said.

The constitution is clear that Alaska’s Supreme Court and Superior Court judges must undergo vetting through the process in question. Those appointments would continue to be filled according to the current procedures; however, other state court vacancies would be subject to the changes laid out in the bill.

“The council goes through an incredibly thorough, multi-step process for gathering input from multiple sources, about that person. They analyze every piece of information about the applicant that they can unearth,” Meade said during testimony.

During a Monday afternoon Zoom call, Susanne DiPietro, the judicial council’s executive director, told Alaska’s News Source that when the constitution was framed, delegates were very clear about how they wanted Alaska’s judges to be chosen.

“They wanted to keep politics, as much as possible, out of the judiciary,” she said, “So they came up with the judicial council.”

The council is made up of three citizens appointed to six-year terms by the governor and approved by the Legislature — and three attorneys that are elected and appointed by the Alaska Bar Association. The council’s bylaws also state that whenever the Alaska Supreme Court elects a new chief justice, that person also begins serving as a member and chair of the council immediately upon assuming office.

Opponents say the judicial council is the problem. Jim Minnery of the Alaska Family Council says his organization fully supports SB14. He wants to see Alaska’s judges seated in a manner similar to how court appointments work in Washington D.C.

“The federal system that is in place right now is probably more geared towards what the constitution of Alaska was trying to realize and it’s just been abused by the Alaska Judicial Council, who’s made it so political,” he said.

After Meade and DiPietro testified on Friday afternoon, Shower commented that the courts and the council were “circling the wagons” to protect their ability to continue appointing judges.

“People would lose their minds if the Legislature got together to pick who the next legislators are, but that is in essence how our court system is set up,” he said.

Along with Shower, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, has questioned whether the current system serves Alaskans’ best interests. The committee chair set a Tuesday evening deadline for amendments to be introduced, related to SB14.

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