Governor yields on nominees

Aide says people have become confused about Murkowski's intentions

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski has decided after all to make a judicial appointment from nominees sent to him by the Alaska Judicial Council, according to the governor's chief of staff.

The announcement by Jim Clark on Friday concludes a dispute between Murkowski and the council that arose last month when the governor rejected all three nominees to fill an Anchorage Superior Court vacancy.

Clark said people have become "confused" about the governor's real intentions.

Murkowski never planned to challenge the council's constitutional authority to choose the most qualified candidates for judicial appointments, Clark said. The system Alaskans have used since statehood has worked well, he said.

The governor simply wanted to ask the council to use its constitutional authority to "tweak" its own selection process so more of the qualified applicants for judgeships make it to the governor, thus providing a larger candidate pool to choose from, Clark said.

The framers of the Alaska Constitution split the power to pick judges among the governor, the voters and an independent seven-member judicial council. Three council members are elected by the Alaska Bar Association, three are named by the governor with approval of the Legislature, and the chair is the chief justice of the state Supreme Court who votes only to break a tie.

After evaluating applicants through public hearings, records checks, interviews and a poll of bar members, the council must send the governor two or more names for each open seat. The governor chooses from the list.

After Superior Court judges serve for three years, their names go on the ballot and the voters decide if they keep their job.

This system, known as the Missouri Plan, has been widely praised. Murkowski's rejection provoked a stinging backlash, including a lawsuit, a resolution by the bar association and an inquiry by one lawmaker about the possibility that the Legislature get an injunction against the governor.

Clark said the governor has narrowed his choices for the Anchorage judgeship to two candidates but declined to say which two. The three names sent to him were Jonathon Katcher, Sidney Billingslea and Craig Stowers, all Anchorage attorneys in private practice.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, has scheduled a legislative hearing for Sept. 30 in Anchorage to discuss the council's judicial selection process.

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