Letter: Leave 'merit system' for judges alone

I am writing this letter in opposition to SJR21 as a member of the Alaska Bar Association and a life-long Alaskan. SJR21 will negatively change our Alaska “merit system” of selection of judges.

The Alaska Constitution requires the Alaska Judicial Council to have seven members; three attorneys appointed by the Alaska Bar Association, three non-attorneys appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature, and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. These members screen applicants for judicial vacancies and nominate the most qualified applicants for the governor’s ultimate decision. SJR21 seeks to create an imbalance between the public appointees and attorney members. This constitutional amendment will effectively allow the political appointees to dominate the selection and retention of judges in Alaska, undermining the ability of an independent judiciary to have fair and impartial courts.

I was fortunate to hear my grandfather, Thomas B. Stewart, speak on numerous occasions — starting with a presentation to my first-grade class — about the purpose of our independent judiciary. After playing a key role in the constitutional convention and the adoption of our judiciary article, my grandfather dedicated his legal career to fostering and preserving this judicial system. He believed the merit system — free of corruption and the outside influence of politics — should not be changed.

Shortly before he passed, he wrote me a short note, attaching three articles about the “Missouri Plan,” in which our merit system is based, and stated, “in my view it has worked very well.”

One of these articles states, “[t]he decision to limit members of the commission to lawyers turns upon which persons … are likely to have better informed opinions, be least susceptible to extraneous influences or considerations, and, working on the commissions, will exert power not solely because of the class from which they come.”
The proponents of SJR21 have created a misconception about the process for selecting attorneys to the council. The attorneys who serve on the council are from different judicial districts, creating geographical diversity among the attorney members. Attorneys want council members who will select judicial candidates who are qualified, hard-working and who fairly and impartially decide cases for their clients. It is not a popularity contest, nor is it driven by politics. The selection is based on merit.

• Jessica Dillon is a member of the Alaska Bar Association.

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