Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has blinked in his standoff with the Alaska Constitution.
Today he announced that he will, in fact, follow the Alaska Constitution’s rules for judicial appointments and select a judge from the list provided by the independent, nonpartisan Alaska Judicial Council. The announcement comes after a meeting with Chief Justice Joel Bolger, whose initial rebuttal was to remind the governor that the constitution isn’t optional.
In a statement released today, the governor said he will interview both nominees and make a selection “soon.”
Last week, the governor refused to fill one of two vacant seats on the Palmer Superior Court, demanding that the Alaska Judicial Council provide him with options beyond Anchorage private-practice attorney Christina Rankin and Palmer private-practice attorney Kristen Stohler.
His Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock also requested access to confidential information the Alaska Judicial Council collects as part of the appointment process, Bolger revealed in his rebuttal.
Neither were options that Alaska’s judiciary appeared willing to entertain.
“I believe the governor’s office does not understand the constitutional requirements for these nominations,” Bolger said at an emergency meeting last Friday. “So I’m going to spend some time outlining the requirements of the constitution and the bylaws and procedures the council has adopted to follow the constitution.”
Bolger and Dunleavy reportedly met on Tuesday. Afterward, Dunelavy recast his attempts to skirt the Alaska Constitution as an effort to “better understand the judicial nomination process and to further clarify whether or not the Council was in fact upholding the merit and qualifications-based standard.”
“This meeting was both productive and fruitful, and provided important clarification about process I was seeking when deciding to delay this nomination,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “As a result, I intend to interview the two Palmer Superior Court nominees and will soon fill this vacancy from the council’s nominees.”
Turns out the Alaska Constitution always wins.
Why it matters
Dunleavy never made clear precisely why he didn’t want to consider Rankin or Stohler for the position, arguing the courts should give him greater latitude in selecting judges by nominating every judge that met the qualifications for the position. The only candidate Dunleavy mentioned by name was Peter Ramgren, who was previously was nominated to a position in the Anchorage Superior Court but overlooked for the Palmer Superior Court.
Bolger did not find Dunleavy’s challenges convincing.
“The founders of our constitution did not intend that the citizens would be required to have their cases decided by a judge with minimal qualifications. Instead they intended that the council would ‘seek for the best available timber,’ that is to nominate only the applicants who are most qualified for the position,” Bolger said, later adding that the process is set up to yield potentially different results from appointment to appointment, “councilmembers consider more than the individual candidate’s qualifications. Their votes are also determined by the strength of the other candidates, the nature of the open position, and the community the judge will serve.”
Many viewed Dunleavy’s attempts to skirt the Alaska Constitution as an alarming attempt at a power grab. He’s previously backed legislative efforts to rework the Alaska Judicial Council, a move that critics said could lead to a more politically conservative judiciary.
For now, at least, Dunleavy’s attempts have been denied.
The full announcement
Governor Comments on Judicial Nomination Process Following “Fruitful and Productive” Meeting with Chief Justice Bolger
Wednesday, March 27, 2019 (Nome, AK) – Alaska Governor Michael J. Dunleavy today issued a statement following a meeting yesterday with Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger:
“Yesterday, I met with Chief Justice Bolger to discuss a variety of issues surrounding the process to fill a vacancy on the Palmer Superior Court,” said Governor Dunleavy. “This meeting was both productive and fruitful, and provided important clarification about process I was seeking when deciding to delay this nomination. As a result, I intend to interview the two Palmer Superior Court nominees and will soon fill this vacancy from the council’s nominees.
“In declining to name a second nominee to the Palmer Superior Court, I announced my intention to better understand the judicial nomination process and to further clarify whether or not the Council was in fact upholding the merit and qualifications-based standard. My hope was to further review and consider the information before us and ensure this process was thoroughly understood by my office,” Dunleavy said. “Based on my discussions with Chief Justice Bolger, my concerns have been satisfied. I expect to make an announcement on this matter in the near future.”
On March 21st, 2019, Governor Dunleavy announced his selections to fill Alaska Superior and District Court judgeships in Utqiagvik, Kodiak, Anchorage, and Palmer, but declined to fill a second vacancy to the Palmer Superior Court without additional information.