Former judge says Alaska should keep politics out of judicial selection process

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 13:20

Former Alaska judge Elaine Andrews believes the state has one of the best processes for selecting judges in the country — and she’d like to keep it that way.

“It is among the most transparent in the nation,” Andrews said during the March 1 meeting of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce at the ER Ale House. “It is an amazing thing.”

Rather than having elected judges, Alaska’s system relies on a “merit based” system, Andrews explained. She explained that the authors of the Alaska Constitution didn’t want the judicial selection process to be overly political, so they installed a system in which the Alaska Judicial Council reviews and selects potential judges.

Andrews said the council thoroughly investigates each candidate, then makes recommendations to the governor, who makes the final selection. She said the council — which is made up of three lawyers, three members of the general public and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court — goes to great lengths to vet each candidate.

“I can assure you it’s pretty darn thorough,” she said.

Opponents of the system believe it gives lawyers too much of a say in the selection process, but Andrews said that’s not the case and that such criticism is “incorrect if it’s based on that understanding.”

Andrews believes the mix of lawyers and lay people works well because it provides a mix of legal expertise and public oversight. Having legal professionals involved in the process, she said, ensures judges are selected based on merit.

“To remove lawyers from the process is absolutely the wrong thing,” she said.

Andrews said the current system allows the public ample say in the process through the review and retention process, which allows the public to vote to retain or remove judges. During the review process, the judicial council again investigates a judge’s rulings and decides whether to recommend retention.

Also speaking on behalf of the current system was Eric McCallum, owner of Arctic Wire Rope and Supply. McCallum said he believes in the current judicial selection process because it closely resembles how business owners hire employees.

“When I hire someone, I’m hiring them based on merit,” he said.

Both Andrews and McCallum said they hope the system remains in place because it’s the best way to remove politics and campaign money from the judicial selection equation.

“The benefits of a merit selection system would be you’re not raising money,” Andrews said. “You’re not politicking.”

The presentation by Andrews and McCallum seemed to be well received by the chamber members, though one person — himself an attorney — wondered aloud whether lawyers had too much say in the selection process. Andrews countered by saying the public members of the council and lawyers are typically in agreement after the vetting process is concluded.

“There is very little divisivness between the lay evaluators and the lawyer evaluators,” she said.

Andrews said anyone interested in the process can visit the Alaska Judicial Council at ajc.state.ak.us. The website includes reports and biographical information about judicial candidates, as well as information about the selection process itself. She also invited people to check out “Fair and Impartial Courts Alaska,” a group that lobbies on behalf of Alaska’s current judicial selection system.

Other notable items discussed at the March 1 chamber meeting included:

— Former Sen. Bill Stoltze introduced guest Dave Donley, a former state senator who is running for the school board.

— Focus Inc. announced a 5-kilometer “fun run” that will be held April 29, beginning at the Eagle River Fred Meyer.

— A volunteer for the Relay for Life event reminded people the American Cancer Society fundraiser is still looking for donations and teams to participate in the May 20 event.

— Shawn Osborne from Matanuska Telephone Association said the nomination process for board member seats is ongoing and that MTA has scholarships available for graduating high school seniors.

— A representative from Knik Little League said the league is taking registrations on its website, kniklittleleague.com.

— ECHO News editor Amy Armstrong reminded the chamber the paper is sponsoring an Anchorage Assembly candidate forum Monday, March 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.

The chamber’s next meeting is scheduled for noon on Wednesday, March 15 at the ER Ale House, where University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen will give a presentation. Chamber lunches cost $16 for nonmembers or $14 for members, with coffee/tea $5 for nonmembers and $3 for members. For more information about the chamber, including a schedule of upcoming meetings, visit them online at cer.org.

Contact Star editor Matt Tunseth at editor@alaskastar.com.

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