Jury Out in State Senate on Judicial Council Changes
Updated On: Apr 09 2014 11:53:14 PM AKDT
As the days get longer, the legislative session is getting shorter. State lawmakers in Juneau still have a lot of important decisions, including whether to deal with a proposal changing the Alaska Judicial Council.
The AJC is an independent panel formed at statehood to vet qualified candidates for judicial positions around the state. For the third time in a week, the state Senate has postponed a vote on whether voters will have a say in amending language in the state constitution governing the council’s makeup.
An Interior lawmaker, Sen. Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks), says the public's voice is not represented in enough in the process -- and he wants that to change.
"Our system of government requires public members, public input and public scrutiny," Kelly said.
Kelly’s proposal would radically expand the council, which screens and forwards a list of qualified candidates for judicial positions to the governor.
Currently, three attorneys appointed by the Alaska Bar Association and three members of the public selected by the governor sit on the council. The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court decides any ties members have on recommendations.
Under Kelly's plan, three more members of the public would join the committee, with no change in the number of attorneys. The chief justice still sits on the council, but would rarely cast a tie-breaking vote since there would be nine voting members.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) likened the amendment to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court in the 1930s by adding as many as six justices to its existing nine, after the Court struck down several pieces of New Deal legislation.
"There is no clamoring from the public to change this -- I think this is a special interest provision," Wielechowski said.
At least four Senate Democrats have said they'll vote against Kelly's bill -- which as a constitutional amendment would require 14 yes votes, not the usual 10, for passage.
The minority caucus says other states have used Alaska as an example of how judicial councils should operate.
“It's a process that weeds out bad lawyers, and lets the very best ones through, the best judges if they're seeking a promotion,” said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Hollis French (D-Anchorage), a former prosecutor. “I'm a big fan of what we're doing so far.”
For now the proposal sits in the Senate Rules Committee, to determine if there are enough votes for passage. Kelly, a self-described conservative, wants his bill to have its day on the floor regardless.
“To say then that the conservatives can't have their day on the field, that's wrong,” Kelly said. “We need to discuss these issues; we need to discuss issues that are important to Alaskans.”
If both houses of the Legislature pass the bill, it would go before voters on a ballot.
Kelly says a consultant who helped with the crafting of Alaska's constitution more than 55 years ago suggested more public members be included on the council.
A spokesperson for the Alaska Court System tells Channel 2 that it opposes Kelly's amendment.
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