House holds up control of courts

Bill would limit what courts can rule on

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2000

A resolution that could have limited judges' ability to change the wording of proposed constitutional amendments was stymied during its first vote on the House floor Thursday.

Rep. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, gave notice of his reconsideration of the measure following the floor vote. That means it could come up for another vote by the House.

Rep. Joe Green, an Anchorage Republican and House majority leader, said the Alaska Supreme Court had blurred the line between a constitutional amendment and a constitutional revision through its 1999 decision in a case known as Bess v. Ulmer.

In that decision, the Supreme Court altered the language in one constitutional amendment proposed by the GOP-led Legislature. The court also threw out another amendment, which would have eliminated Alaska constitutional rights for prisoners, because the court found it would make a more sweeping change than an amendment. The court called the proposal a revision, which can only be performed at a constitutional convention.

``What we have before us is a cloud,'' said Green.

Lawmakers don't know where a constitutional amendment ends and a revision begins, he said, and Senate Joint Resolution 34 would clear the air.

Sen. Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican, sponsored the resolution. In his statement of support for the measure, he railed against the courts as being anti-democratic, power-grabbing and elitist.

The Senate gave the measure the two-thirds vote it needed, and the measure will go on this fall's ballot for voter approval if it wins two-thirds House approval.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat, said there's always the chance the courts will declare the measure unconstitutional.

Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, said the resolution seeks to go too far and change the state's constitutionally defined balance between the executive, court and legislative branches.

Lawmakers, he said, should spend less time complaining about that balance and just ``play within constitutional rules.''

Needing 27 votes for approval, the resolution fell one shy. Joining the 13-member Democratic minority was a lone Republican, Anchorage Rep. Pete Kott, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Kott said he voted no because the measure would allow the Legislature to put amendments and limited constitutional revisions on the ballot, a change from the committee's version.

He also voted no because, he said, ``I gave my word.''

Kott said he promised a surviving member of the constitutional convention that wrote Alaska's constitution that he wouldn't vote for a measure that included the revision language. He wouldn't name the conventioneer.

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