Alaska bill would change judicial selection system

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A proposed bill would upend Alaska’s longstanding system for choosing judges by allowing the governor to make direct appointments to two levels of the state’s judiciary.

The bill introduced by Republican Sen. Mike Shower is part of an effort by conservatives to reshape the state’s judicial selection system, the Anchorage Daily News reported Wednesday.

Under Alaska’s system, the governor must nominate judges from a list of qualified applicants submitted by the Alaska Judicial Council, which is made up of three community members and three lawyers chosen by the Alaska Bar Association. The Alaska Supreme Court chief justice has a tie-breaking vote.

Voters weigh in on judges through retention elections every few years.

The proposed law would change the way judges are chosen only for the District Court system, which largely handles misdemeanors, and the Court of Appeals, which handles criminal case appeals.

The measure would not alter selections for Superior Court, where most criminal and civil trials occur, and the Alaska Supreme Court. Changes to those courts would require an amendment to the Alaska constitution.

Conservatives assert the selection system grants too much power to unelected attorneys and keeps conservatives off the bench.

“This bill will divest some of the power to appoint judges from the Bar Association-controlled Judicial Council and provide some accountability and transparency to the process of who gets appointed to the bench,” Shower said.

“If the governor appoints and a legislature confirms a judge, they both will be accountable to the voters on a regular basis,” he said.

Opponents argue the bill would turn judgeships into political patronage appointments.

Justice Not Politics, a nonpartisan group advocating merit-based selection of judges, said in a statement that the bill was “the opposite of what the framers of our constitution intended.”

“This represents a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics,” the group said.

At a Judiciary Committee meeting in Juneau Friday, Alaska Court System attorney Nancy Meade argued the bill would “make politics and political affiliation a key factor for seating judges.”

“In the court’s view this bill will undermine the independence of the judiciary and public trust in the court system and hinder our ability to handle cases effectively and fairly,” Meade said.