Alaska is just one of seven states in the country that does not elect its attorney general. A constitutional amendment that’s moving through the Alaska Legislature would change that.
During every legislature of the past decade, someone has introduced a measure that would put the office of attorney general up to a vote. It’s been offered by Republicans. It’s been pushed by Democrats. And every time, the idea hasn’t gone anywhere.
That is, until now. Rep. Bill Stoltze (R-Chugiak) is carrying the measure this time, and he’s actually getting hearings on it. On Tuesday, he told the House State Affairs Committee that it’s an issue of accountability.
“It would certainly sanctify that that is the people’s lawyer,” Stoltze said. “The attorney generals call themselves that, but really, in de facto, it is the governor’s lawyer.”
The attorney general is one of the most powerful offices in Alaska state government. As head of the Department of Law, the attorney general defends the state in court and makes recommendations on what statutes, regulations, and even citizens initiatives are constitutional.
Stoltze can think of a recent example of the attorney general exerting considerable influence over state policy. Last month, the current attorney general signed off on an opinion that an initiative to ban commercial setnetting operations in the state’s urban waters would be unconstitutional. Stoltze believes that if you have some control over what voters can decide, the voters should have some say in who’s in that position.
“That bothers me a little bit – not the content of the initiative, but [that] an assistant attorney general has more power than the people of Alaska,” he said.
While some members of the State Affairs Committee expressed support for the measure, there were questions and concerns. A couple of members of the committee wondered if electing an attorney general could lead to conflict between that office and the governor. One Democrat noted that potential for friction could be a risk as the state pursues a complex natural gas mega project.
But mostly, members of the committee wondered if electing the attorney general would make the office overly political. Rep. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) couched her support for the measure with that caveat.
“I value the intelligence of the citizens of Alaska and would hope and pray that it wouldn’t become a beauty contest and a public speaking contest, which sometimes elections can be,” said Hughes.
Stoltze says putting the office of attorney general to a vote wouldn’t make the position more political. It would just change who’s playing politics.
“Anybody who has watched attorney generals in this State of Alaska knows they already are political by nature,” he said.
Now that it’s been heard by the State Affairs Committee, the measure advances to the House Judiciary Committee. Because it’s a constitutional amendment, the measure needs two-thirds approval from the Legislature and a majority vote of Alaska citizens.