The Alaska MERIT SELECTION System at Work, 1984-2007

Article excerpt

Thirty-seven states now use merit selection to fill some or all of their vacancies.' Others aie considering adopting merit selection instead of their present methods. For all of these states, it is helpful to have detailed insight into how merit selection works in Alaska, one of the oldest merit selection systems in the country.2 A recent report by die Judicial Council analyzed data about applicants, nominees, and appointees for all judgeships between 1984 and 2007,* consistent with the Bren nan Center recommendation diat states should keep data about their judicial selection processes.* This article summarizes the findings from die Council's report.

The seven-member Alaska Judicial Council includes three non-attorneys appointed by the governor "subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the legislature in joint session," and three attorney members appointed "by the governing body of the organized state bar." The constitution requires that the appointments be made "with due consideration to area representation and without regard to political affiliation." Members serve staggered six-year terms. The chief justice of the supreme court, whose term lasts three years, is the chair ex officio. Membership of the Council has historically been both diverse and distinguished, including former legislators, attorneys general, participants at die constitutional convention, business leaders, and minority and Alaska Native leaders.

The constitution prohibits state and federal government employees from membership. Because most prosecutors and public criminal defense attorneys are employed by the state rather than local governments, this limits their participation. Attorney members over the years have represented both plaintiff and defense interests, and included specialists in family and criminal law.

The selection process

Alaska is still one of the smallest states, aldiough its population grew by 30 percent in die years covered by the Council's research, from about 524,000 in 1984 to 683,478 in 2007. The Judicial Council is responsible for the merit selection process for 40 superior court judges (general jurisdiction), 21 district court judges (limited jurisdiction), and 8 appellate judges. As a result of turnover among judges and creation of new positions, the Council's workload increased from an average of 3.8 vacancies per year in the mid-1980s to an average of 7.2 vacancies per year between 2003 and 2007. The average number of attorneys applying for each vacancy increased from 6.2 to 10.6.

For each applicant,5 the Council collects information about education, work history, present and past caseloads and appearances in court, a writing sample, and waivers that permit a review of credit and criminal histories, bar and judicial discipline, and contacts with six or more attorneys and judges who have had recent direct professional experience with the applicant. Staff verify employment, check references, evaluate the writing samples, and carry out needed investigations. Ali bar members are sent a survey giving them a chance to evaluate each applicant for each position.

The public is encouraged to participate in the process to an extent not found in all states. The applicants' names are announced at die beginning of the process; their survey scores from the bar are published a few weeks before the interviews; and a public hearing is held for each vacancy in the community where the judge will sit. Public comments are invited throughout the process, on die Council's website and through press releases. The Council interviews all applicants, and the applicants may choose to have their interviews held in public or in executive session. The Council votes on its nominees in public," and the nominees' names are released almost immediately after the vote.

The Council's data showed that it nominated 38 percent of all applicants. About 75 percent of the time, it sent die governor three or more names for a position. …