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

A white man in a black suit speaks on the podium
Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Oct. 18, 2019. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

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,” Bolger said. “And I feel that we have the best judicial selection process in the country.”

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower has introduced a bill that would give the governor the power to directly appoint district and appeals court judges. It would remove the independent Alaska Judicial Council’s large role in the current process: Selecting the nominees 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 “ridiculous.” 

He noted judges write opinions explaining their rulings. 

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

Regarding COVID-19, he said the court system was determined to stay open to the fullest extent possible without putting the public at risk. 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 other judicial business continued, including hearings related to mental health and domestic violence.  

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

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