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Monday, February 24, 2020

Retired Alaska judge praises state's merit-based selection process, lack of politics

By Nicholas Gueguen | Mar 30, 2017

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Legal Newsline) – Retired Alaska Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews likes that Alaska's judicial-selection system is currently based on merit, calling it the most transparent in the country.

Andrews, who is a member of Alaska's Committee on Fair and Impartial Courts, says the system reduces the amount of politics in selecting judges.

"And it also takes money out of the equation because judges don't run for election, so they don't need to have, especially in this day in age, a money-collecting apparatus," Andrews said. "And so it takes money out of it, it takes politics out of it, it puts merit to the forefront.

"And yet, it provides the elected official, the governor, a choice of candidates, but the choices are people who have been found as having the highest merit."

Andrews said that the public has a say in the choices for judge in this merit-based system. 

"Alaska has the most transparent, public process," Andrews said. "In some states, it's not as open and transparent. But we have an incredibly open process."

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia also have a merit-based selection process, often referred to as the "Missouri Plan."

Alaska's supreme court features five justices. Each was nominated by a governor who received a list of candidates from the Alaska Judicial Council. Judicial selection in lower courts is made in a similar fashion.

Andrews, who was a judge in the state for more than 20 years, doesn't see any drawbacks with the system, but she is aware of complaints people have had about the system.

"One could argue that if you have a different form of merit selection, it might not be as transparent as it needs to be," Andrews said. "Some people say they think that the legal community has too much control, but, in fact, our merit-based selection process is done through the judicial council, and that's three lawyers who actually are elected on merit from among members of the bar.

"And we have geographical diversity of the lawyers, so they come from the different judicial districts."

Those lawyers get approved by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association, and three non-lawyers appointed by the governor are also on the agency. A single governor can't pack the council because the members serve six-year terms.

Andrews said the Alaska Bar Association also values geographical diversity.

"And those folks decide," Andrews said. "And the only time the chief justice gets involved is if there's a tie. And virtually all, but not every single time, the chief justice tends to vote to send the person to the governor rather than to deny the governor the choice of that person on which there is a division.

"And history shows that in, I don't have the exact number, so I'm going to say well over 75 percent, I think it's closer to 82 or 85 percent, that the lawyers and the non-lawyers are unanimous on a candidate one way or the other."

But, Andrews said, there have been proposals to change the system.

"In more recent times, I'd say in the last four or five years, we've had legislation introduced at each legislative session to try and change the makeup of the council to get more of the governor's lay appointees and to sort of create a more heavily governor-selected panel," Andrews said.

"And those efforts have not borne fruit, but we don't have anything pending in the legislation this year that I'm aware of, but we have had for the last several years."

Andrews said she expects to see more attempts to get the council changed in the future as well.

"Alaska was obviously one of the last states in the country to be able to look at all the other states and figure out what works best," Andrews said. "And we, I think, have done a pretty good job crafting a very balanced approach."

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Organizations in this Story

Alaska Bar Association