Measure To Elect Attorney General Moves Ahead

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 Legislature would change that.

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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, a Chugiak Republican, 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. If the attorney general is elected instead of appointed …

STOLTZE: It would certainly sanctify that that is the people’s lawyer. 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.

“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,” said Stoltze.

While some members of the state affairs committee expressed support for the measure, there were reservations. A couple of members of the committee wondered if electing an attorney general could lead to conflict between that office and the governor. Some would like to see it amended so that the attorney general is required to be the same party as the governor, and so that there’s a removal mechanism. One Democrat noted that potential for friction could be a risk as the state pursues a complex natural gas megaproject.

But mostly, members of the committee wondered if electing the attorney general would make the office overly political. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican, 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 argued that 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,” said Stoltze.

Now that it’s been heard by the state affairs committee, the measure advances to the judiciary committee. Because it’s a constitutional amendment, the measure needs two-thirds approval from the Legislature and a majority vote of Alaska citizens.