Every 10 years Alaskan voters are asked to decide if a state Constitutional Convention should be held. But consistent with an electorate loathe to spend money on government functions, it’s been overwhelming rejected every time. That’s why, although I disagree with his priorities, I think it’s a good idea that Governor-elect Mike Dunleavy is gearing up to consider some constitutional reforms.
Four years ago, Dunleavy co-sponsored an amendment that would have changed the makeup of the judicial council, the independent body responsible for nominating judges for the state’s courts. Currently, the council has seven members — three attorneys and three non-attorneys with the chief justice of the state supreme court serving as the seventh member and chairperson. The attorneys are chosen by the state bar association and, unlike the non-attorney members, are not subject to confirmation by the legislature.
“The process can be called lawyers choosing lawyers to referee other lawyers,” said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the primary sponsor of the proposed amendment. Their solution was to add three non-attorney members and require all nine be confirmed by the legislature. In other words, lawyers would have less influence in judicial appointments than partisan politicians with little or no law experience.
That’s an accurate description of our elected senators and representatives. Most, including Dunleavy and Kelly, have never practiced or studied law. Of the five senators most recently serving on the judiciary committee, only Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, earned a law degree.
The constitution requires council member appointments be made “without regard to political affiliation.” Gordon S. Harrison, Ph.D, the author of Alaska’s Constitution: A Citizen’s Guide (http://w3.legis.state.ak.us/docs/pdf/citizens_guide.pdf), notes that this provision is “difficult to enforce.” Despite that, he states, “Alaska’s judiciary system is recognized nationally as one of the best in the United States.”
Our judicial system is neither perfect nor broken. But it will trend toward the latter if partisan politicians with minimal legal credentials are given more power of over the appointment of judges.
The same will happen if Dick Randolph, the special adviser on constitutional amendments appointed by Dunleavy, is given too much power to guide the effort.
An insurance salesman for 50 years, Randolph served four terms in the state House in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Despite that being the limit of his expertise on the law and constitutional governance, he’s convinced “the state constitution is awful.”
“All sub-surface wealth is mandated to be owned by the state,” Randolph argues, “so we can’t have a private economy.” That’s an interesting position for someone proud about having voted for the creation of the Permanent Fund Dividend. Because if delegates to the constitutional convention had his view, they’d have sold off the North Slope oil fields 60 years ago and the fund wouldn’t exist.
Without it, we’d still have a state income tax, which Randolph likes to take credit for leading the legislative charge to abolish. And many Alaskans believe a new income tax is necessary, especially if none of the fund can be used to pay for state government. That’s why I oppose the constitutional amendment Dunleavy has proposed to restore the traditional PFD payout.
It’s worth recognizing that Alaska’s Supreme Court ruled an income tax doesn’t violate the constitution in part because the last paragraph of Article I, Section 1, Inherent Rights, states “all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and to the State.” That sentiment reflects the interdependent vision of nation’s founders when they “mutually pledged to each other” their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in support of the Declaration of Independence. And it’s another argument for letting go of a portion of our PFD.
Despite these disagreements, I support the general idea of examining the Constitution. For example, an amendment imposing legislative term limits should be considered. Fifteen other states do. And like them all, we limit the term our governor can serve.
The process for legislative reapportionment defined in Article VI also needs attention. Evidence of partisan tinkering in all five plans resulted in some of the new district boundaries being declared unconstitutional.
The constitution has other shortcomings. But like the reapportionment cases, the effort to put constitutional amendments before the voters will fail if it’s overly partisan. That’s why our new governor must ensure the diversity of Alaska’s population is represented throughout this important task.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a weekly “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.