State Senate tries to limit high court powers

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The state Senate wants to change the Alaska Constitution to make it easier to change the constitution.

Senators voted 14-5 today to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall that would allow constitutional revisions to be made by legislators with approval of the voters. Sen. Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, gave notice of reconsideration, so the measure could be up for another vote in the Senate on Thursday.

Currently, the constitution says changes so significant as to be considered revisions must be made by a specially called constitutional convention.

The resolution approved today is in response to an Alaska Supreme Court decision that two years ago threw one proposed constitutional amendment off the ballot and changed another one.

Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, said the decision represented ``the high-water mark of arrogance'' by the court.

It makes it difficult for the Legislature to deal with constitutional issues at all now, he said, including proposals to change the constitution to allow a rural preference for subsistence.

The amendment thrown off the ballot was a proposal by Sen. Dave Donley to reduce rights of prisoners in Alaska. Donley, an Anchorage Republican, is the primary sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 27, which would allow the Legislature to propose revisions.

The court said the changes in prisoners' rights proposed were not just amendments, but revisions to the Constitution, so they required convening of a constitutional convention. Donley said the court was encroaching on the power of the Legislature with its decision.

``They manipulated the language of one ballot proposition and they just simply denied the rights of Alaskans to vote on another,'' he said.

Five Democrats, who are in the minority in the Senate, voted against the measure.

``SJR 27 represents a power grab by this majority against the Supreme Court and the people of Alaska,'' said Sen. Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat.

Revising the constitution now is a power reserved to a convention elected specifically for that task by the voters, he said. ``I think people see that power of the people as very precious.''

In a memo to Donley, the attorney general's office said the power to revise the constitution is reserved for a convention ``because the Legislature generally lacks ability to focus time to consider the constitution as an organic whole.''

After leaving the Senate, the resolution will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the House before it can go to voters.

However, the attorney general's office warned that the change proposed would itself be subject to court challenge because it would itself be a revision to the constitution.

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