What makes a good judge? It is a person able to apply the law impartially without regard to politics. A good judge is an experienced and smart person with the ability to learn, to be fair, just, compassionate, free from prejudice and bias, and respectful of all.
States use one of four methods to select their judges. They are: 1) Merit selection involving a nominating committee. 2) Partisan election, applicants running with party affiliation. 3) Nonpartisan election, applicants running with without party affiliation. 4) Appointment by the Governor. Several states use a hybrid method which combines merit selection and election. Appellant court judges selected on merit; general court judges elected.
Roughly one-half the states, including Alaska, use the merit selection method. Judicial applicants are first evaluated by their peers regarding their professional competence, experience, integrity, fairness, and temperament. Next the applicants are interviewed by a nominating committee, the Alaska Judicial Council. The Alaska Constitution requires the judicial council consist of members from across the state and selected without regard to political affiliation. Three members of the judicial council are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature; three members appointed by the Alaska Bar Association. The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court sits as an ex officio member of the council. After the judicial council interviews, and holds public hearings on the applicants, the council recommends a short list of qualified persons to the governor to select and appoint from.
This selection process has provided Alaska an excellent independent judiciary; one respected and admired across the nation.
The public has influence several places in this process. First, in the council member selection process; the public, through comment, has influence on who the governor appoints, or who their legislator confirms to sit on the judicial council. Public comments about applicants may be sent to the council and made at the council’s public hearings. Periodically after appointment, the public votes on the retention of judges.
Advocates for another constitutional convention want to change Alaska’s judicial selection process. They argue election of judges is more democratic. Seriously. How can the election of a person who has bowed to the current political winds and whims to be elected be more democratic and provide equitable justice?! How could a candidate who has vigorously raised huge sums of money to run against another going to provide justice for all? What if you were in court asking that popularly elected judge to rule fairly; the same judge who received giant contributions from the other person, or side in your case? Popular election of judges is an invitation to massive corruption, bias and gross injustice. It is not democracy, it is oligarchy. Numerous studies in states with elected judges have shown those judges typically have a bias in favor of those who financed their campaigns. Justice is not simply winning the most votes. Justice is protecting and providing everyone, particularly minority persons, a fair chance.
Election of judges is the last thing needed as we the people continue to strive toward a more perfect union. While Alaska’s judicial selection system is not perfect it is immensely better than selection by election of judges.
Gayle Garrigues is a lifetime resident of Alaska, since 1981 has practiced law across the state, and has lived in Fairbanks since 1987.
Source: Daily News-Miner