Lawmakers fast-track Western court breakup

Posted: Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Senate and House of Representatives members are holding simultaneous discussions today on a proposed split of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court handles important Southeast Alaska cases, including Tongass National Forest timber lawsuit appeals and other land disputes.

But the 9th Circuit is under fire from conservatives due to some of its controversial rulings over the last few decades.

Senate bill co-sponsor Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has avoided raising that critique, though her bill would accomplish the conservatives' primary goal - to split liberal California away from other Western states in the circuit.

The House and Senate companion bills would create a new 9th Circuit for California, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. The new 12th circuit would comprise Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Murkowski says the appeals court needs to be split because it is too big and unwieldy and its rulings are subject to long delays.

The majority of the court's judges oppose the split, as well as more than 80 civil rights, labor, health and environmental groups.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a public hearing today on the Senate bill.

But a House subcommittee plans to mark up House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner's version of the legislation, introduced last week, without holding a public hearing first.

The apparent fast-tracking of the House bill has outraged some opponents of the split, who said Tuesday that a hearing is needed to allow the judges to speak up on their own behalf.

The subcommittee's move "fits the recent pattern in the House to ram a host of terrible bills through before (politicians), the media and the public figures out what is happening," said Glenn Sugameli, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm based in Washington, D.C.

Earthjustice's Juneau law office has handled a number of Tongass timber cases - such as a recently won challenge to the Tongass Land Management Plan - before the 9th Circuit.

Sensenbrenner said last week that the issue has been studied for 30 years and it's time to split the court. "It is no longer a question of if, but when," he said.

Rep. Don Young said on Oct. 5 that the split is good for Alaska because "we will no longer be governed by adverse court decisions made for San Francisco and that way of life."

The courts' judges are actually spread throughout the Western states, and include one judge based in Alaska and another who previously served as a federal prosecutor in Juneau.

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