It doesn’t matter whether Alaska’s executive branch, legislative branch or the general population is conservative, Alaskans rarely see the appointment of conservative, constitutionalist judges. That’s because none of these groups have much say when it comes to choosing possible candidates to serve on the bench.
The real gatekeeper, which determines names the governor can choose from when appointing judges, is the powerful Alaska Judicial Council. This is an unelected, seven-member body made up of three members appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature, three members appointed by the Alaska Bar Association, and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court.
Conservative Alaskans have complained for decades that the Alaska Bar Association is a left-leaning group of lawyers that only chooses its three members of the Alaska Judicial Council from among its liberal ranks. These council members do not need approval by the Legislature, and since the sitting chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court is also vetted by the Alaska Judicial Council, liberal members almost always enjoy a 4-3 majority over conservatives when vetting possible candidates for the bench.
When liberals have the power to select our judges, the public is stuck with the decisions of liberal judges.
Since the governor can only appoint candidates from among at least two names forwarded to him from the Alaska Judicial Council, it is nearly impossible to appoint a conservative or pro-life justice.
On Feb. 10, Alaska Family Council released a report detailing the partisan liberal leanings of the Alaska Bar Association. Among their members, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a wide margin – 27.48% to 15.85%. That’s nearly the polar opposite of Alaska voters as a whole, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 24.25% to 12.83%. The study was performed by Data Orbital, a Phoenix-based research firm that conducts surveys across the nation.
“When liberals have the power to select our judges, the public is stuck with the decisions of liberal judges,” Alaska Family Council President Jim Minnery noted in a statement about the study. “We may be a red state, but the judicial branch of government is controlled by a legal elite that runs deep blue in Alaska.”
Not surprisingly, there’s a long track record of conservative lawyers receiving lousy scores on the Bar survey.
In addition to choosing three members for the Alaska Judicial Council, the Alaska Bar Association (ABA) also provides the main tool used by the Judicial Council to evaluate lawyers who apply to serve as judges – a bar survey that asks all ABA members their opinion of each applicant.
“Not surprisingly, there’s a long track record of conservative lawyers receiving lousy scores on the Bar survey,” Minnery observed. “That’s because liberal ABA members are highly motivated to prevent any conservative applicants from being included on the list of nominees that is forwarded to the governor.”
Dissatisfaction with Alaska’s judicial selection process surfaced last year when Gov. Mike Dunleavy initially refused to appoint a superior court judge from the narrow list of names submitted to him by the Alaska Judicial Council. The governor’s request for additional names was denied. Gov. Frank Murkowski did the same in 2004. Both men wound up appointed a judge from the original list.
ALASKA BAR ASSOCIATION POLITICAL AFFILIATIONS
The new report was able to identify the voter registration of 1,918 members of the Alaska Bar Association. Below is a breakdown of their party affiliation.
- Undeclared: 603 members (31.44%)
- Alaska Democratic Party: 527 members (27.48%)
- Nonpartisan: 463 members (24.14%)
- Alaska Republican Party: 304 members (15.85%)
- Alaskan Independence Party: 10 members (0.52%)
- Alaska Libertarian Party: 6 members (0.31%)
- Green Party of Alaska: 5 members (0.26%)
For comparison, the study provided the partisan affiliations of Alaska voters as a whole. They are as follows:
- Undeclared: 253,808 members (43.61%)
- Alaska Republican Party: 141,171 members (24.25%)
- Nonpartisan: 84,093 members (14.45%)
- Alaska Democratic Party: 74,652 members (12.83%)
- Alaskan Independence Party: 17,213 members (2.96%)
- Alaska Libertarian Party: 7,259 members (1.25%)
- Other Political Groups: 2,202 members (0.38%)
- Green Party of Alaska: 1,631 members (0.28%)
JUDICIAL SELECTION METHODS VARY
Alaska’s system for choosing and appointing judges differs from most other states where voters either decide directly on judges, or where state legislatures approve candidates that are nominated by the governor. According to BallotPedia, the five main methods states use to select judges are as follows:
- Assisted appointment (Alaska’s method): A nominating commission reviews the qualifications of judicial candidates and submits a list of names to the governor, who appoints a judge from the list. After serving an initial term, the judge must be confirmed by the people in a yes-no retention election to remain on the court. In Alaska, these elections are “yes” or “no” decisions, occurring only once every 10 years in the case of Supreme Court justices. No opponents are on the ballot, and judges do not campaign or answer questions.
- Partisan elections:Judges are elected by the people, and candidates are listed on the ballot alongside a label designating political party affiliation.
- Nonpartisan elections:Judges are elected by the people, and candidates are listed on the ballot without a label designating party affiliation.
- Legislative elections:Judges are selected by the state legislature.
- Gubernatorial appointment:Judges are appointed by the governor. In some cases, approval from the legislative body is required.
A constitutional amendment would be required to overhaul how judges are selected in Alaska. One slight change has been proposed by Sen. Mike Showers of Wasilla who introduced SJR 3 which proposes a constitutional amendment requiring a majority vote of the Alaska Legislature to approve new members selected by the Alaska Bar Association to sit on the Alaska Judicial Council.