Alaska Judicial Council faces loss of power

JUNEAU — The Alaska Judicial Council would be barred from recommending whether judges should be retained under a bill proposed in the state House.

HB200, from Rep. Wes Keller, was heard and held by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The judicial council describes itself as an independent citizens’ commission created by the state Constitution. It screens applicants for judicial vacancies, makes nominations to the governor and recommends whether voters should retain judges.

Keller’s proposal also would require the council provide “impartial and objective information” about justices or judges subject to approval or rejection during elections.

The bill was in part prompted by an advertisement published in October that urged voters to vote in favor of Judge Sen Tan. Because it was paid for by the Judicial Council, some viewed this as the state using public funds for a political purpose.

Keller, in his sponsor statement, says the information provided by the council for inclusion in election pamphlets “often goes beyond impartial and objective.”

“The question is, should a government agency be making such a recommendation or should they just provide the information received and investigated during the review process,” Keller said in his sponsor statement. “House Bill 200 answers that question clearly by advising the Council not to include recommendation language.”

Former Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti and Nancy Meade, the general counsel to the Alaska court system, both testified in opposition to the measure.

Carpeneti, who also served on the Judicial Council, argued that by removing the recommendation power of the council, the state would be depriving the public of the outcome of the council’s work. He noted that the recommendations of the council are often quite lengthy and dense, and that many voters don’t read through them.

Meade said normally, the court system doesn’t take a position on bills — if any bill were to be challenged in the judiciary and the court had publicly stated its opinion, it could create a neutrality conflict.

However, the court system felt strongly enough about the bill that they chose to testify in opposition before the House Judiciary Committee, she said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the bill would be heard again before the Legislature adjourns Sunday.

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