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Amendment To Restructure Judicial Council Stalls Before Vote

A constitutional amendment that would reconfigure a commission tasked with vetting judges was pulled from a vote in the Alaska Senate on Monday and then again on Tuesday after struggling to pick up the necessary support.

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Senate Joint Resolution 21 would make it so that the governor’s public appointees on the Judicial Council would outnumber the attorney members two to one. It would also require the attorney members to go through confirmation by the Legislature. Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, has pitched it as a way to add more rural members to the council and increase public oversight of judicial selection.

The Alaska Court System and the Alaska Federation of Natives have come out against the amendment, and Democrats in the minority have argued that the change would allow the Legislature to stack the judiciary. In recent years, the Judicial Council has been a political target for conservative advocacy groups that are unhappy with the way the courts have ruled on abortion cases.

Because SJR 21 would amend the Constitution, it needs approval from two-thirds of the Legislature. Sen. Lesil McGuire, who chairs the Rules Committee tasked with scheduling the measure, says it’s not quite there yet. Enough urban Democrats and moderate Republicans have registered opposition to the amendment to keep it from going through.

“It’s a question about whether the votes are there for sure.”

The measure has been re-scheduled for Wednesday’s calendar to give Kelly the chance to secure another ‘yes’ vote.

This is the second time this session a constitutional amendment was scheduled for a vote in the Senate only to be withdrawn from consideration. The other constitutional measure would have allowed public funds to be spent at private schools, including religious ones.

McGuire says more constitutional amendments have gotten close to passage this year because the Senate is no longer controlled by a bipartisan coalition.

“Most of the things that were on the far right and the far left were kept off the table,” says McGuire. “So the agenda over the past six years was right down the middle of the road for Alaskans. So, what you’re seeing now is a conservative Senate. And as a result of that, you’ve got members that have been waiting to get out of that starting gate with their conservative messages.”

If Kelly’s amendment fails to attract more support, it could be held in the Rules Committee indefinitely.

Any constitutional amendment that passes the Legislature gets put on the ballot for a vote.

This story has been updated to reflect Tuesday’s floor action.

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