Lawsuit challenges how Alaska picks judges

Chris Rizo Aug. 29, 2009, 7:55pm

Robert Eastaugh

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Legal Newsline)-A lawsuit filed in Alaska seeks to change the way the state chooses its judges by curbing attorney influence over the judicial selection process.

The lawsuit, which contends that lawyers have too much influence over choosing state jurists, seeks to bar the Alaska Judicial Council from forwarding names to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Alaska Supreme Court.

The Judicial Council is considering applicants to fill the vacancy to be left by state Supreme Court Justice Robert Eastaugh, who announced he will retire from the five-member court Nov. 2.

The lawsuit specifically challenges the state constitution, which says the governing body of the Alaska Bar Association will name three of the seven members of the Alaska Judicial Council.

It is the Judicial Council that forwards names of judicial nominees to the governor, who then must pick an appointee from the list.

The Associated Press reported that the lawsuit was filed last month. A hearing on the federal case has been set for Sept. 11.

James Bopp Jr. is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. He said attorneys have too much say over who will potentially hear their cases.

"The trial lawyers' bread and butter depends on liberal rulings on personal injury cases," Bopp was quoted by AP as saying. "They have a direct financial interest in who is a judge. And if they are able to elect their fellow trial lawyers to the commission, they've got a really privileged position and ability to line their own pockets."

The Associated Press reported that Margaret Paton-Walsh, the assistant attorney general assigned to the case, said the lawsuit seeks to eliminate important provisions of the Alaska Constitution.

"Alaska's Constitution created a system of judicial selection designed to ensure that the most highly qualified candidates were appointed to the judiciary," she said. "This system was carefully designed by the framers of the Alaska Constitution and has served the state well for the last 50 years."

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