Alaska chief justice defends judicial selection process, as senator introduces bill to change it

Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger delivers the annual State of the Judiciary address to the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 in the Alaska State Capitol at Juneau, Alaska. Because of COVID-19 precautions, Bolger stood behind a plexiglass screen and delivered the address to only the Alaska Senate, instead of a joint session of the Senate and House. All but one House member watched the address remotely. (James Brooks/Anchorage Daily News via AP, Pool)

Shortly after delivering the State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger defended Alaska’s process for picking judges — as well as the judges themselves. 

State senators have criticized the current judicial selection process, as well as specific rulings, during recent hearings. 

Bolger said it’s important to keep politics out of picking judges. 

“I’ve come into contact with many judges and justices from other states over the past 24 years. And I feel that we have the best judicial selection process in the country,” Bolger said. 

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower has introduced a bill that would give the governor the power to directly appoint district and appeals court judges. The independent Alaska Judicial Council currently has a large role in the process by selecting nominees that the governor must choose from. 

Sen. Lora Reinbold, an Eagle River Republican, chairs her chamber’s judiciary committee. She recently said Anchorage Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby should appear before the committee regarding her decision that absentee voters didn’t need a witness to their ballot signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bolger described calls for judges to appear before state legislative committees like this as “ridiculous.” 

He noted that judges write opinions that explain their rulings. 

“So if somebody wants to know the basis for a court decision, they should read the decision,” he said. 

He said the court system was determined to stay open to the fullest extent possible, while not putting the public at risk from the disease. But he noted an exception. 

“The courts suspended nearly all jury trials beginning last spring, reluctantly, because we could see that bringing all these Alaskans into a courtroom was — and continues to be — just too risky to the public’s health,” he said.

Some jury trials will restart in March.

Bolger said the courts took steps to ensure that other judicial business continued, including hearings related to mental health and domestic violence.  

Bolger noted that the judiciary proposed a slight increase in its budget. But he added that this follows budget cuts over the past six years, and said that the courts have been a careful steward of state funding. 

 

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