State's founders support unfettered judiciary

Surviving delegates talk about Alaska Constitution

Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2003

The surviving members of the Alaska Constitutional Convention reunited last week to reminisce and remind people of the importance of an independent judiciary.

Thursday evening's reunion at Centennial Hall was part of Law Day, a celebration of the legal system.

Former delegates from the 1955-56 convention who attended were Jack Coghill, Victor Fischer, Katie Hurley, Maynard Londborg, Burke Riley, George Sundborg and U.S. District Judge James von der Heydt. Retired Juneau Superior Court Judge Thomas Stewart, secretary of the convention, also attended.

Many of the former delegates said the beauty of the convention, which met to craft the Alaska Constitution from November 1955 to February 1956, was the sense of democracy among the 55 delegates who would determine how the territory of Alaska would function as a state. The convention was held in the basement of the student union at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Delegates remembered the diversity of the delegates, which included six women and one Alaska Native, a lineup they said was nearly unheard of in the rest of the country at the time.

"There was a tremendous democratic feeling, small 'd,' where everyone - whether a fisherman, a miner, a homemaker, we had all of them - could come together," said Fischer, a former state legislator. "There were no fractions or factions there. We worked together. Our motto was, 'I'm for statehood; I have no ax to grind.' "

Delegates also talked about why they fought to keep an article in the constitution establishing an independent judiciary in Alaska.

An independent judiciary refers to the way judges are selected. In Alaska, and only 14 other states, judges are selected by merit. In Alaska, a nonpartisan council of three attorneys, three non-attorneys and a Supreme Court justice reviews judicial candidates and makes recommendations to the governor. The governor makes the final decision and the judges are subject to retention elections.

"The price of judicial independence is eternal vigilance," said Fischer, "I'm appalled to see Legislature after Legislature attempt to undermine the integrity of the judicial branch by trying to get involved with the selection of judges."

Stewart said he would hate to see a system in which law firms could endorse or raise funds to elect judges who could preside over their cases. He said under an election system, the appearance of, and temptation for, impropriety is greater.

Coghill agreed. He quoted a statistic from a recent study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which said the average Supreme Court candidate in states with elected judiciaries in 2000 raised $430,000 for a campaign.

"I would hate to see a system where special interest is put before public interest," said Coghill, a former legislator and lieutenant governor. "I think our system is working. You don't need to dink with things that are working."

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