The far-right Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t want to hear their legislation aiming to inject politics into Alaska’s lower courts would cost money, but instead of further revising the bill to bring down the costs they simply zeroed out the funding requests.
Sens. Lora Reinbold, Mike Shower and Shelley Hughes voted to zero out the fiscal notes that two agencies had provided for the implementation of Senate Bill 14, which seeks to insert the Legislature into the selection of judges for the District Court and the Court of Appeals as well as magistrates as part of an effort to pull Alaska’s court system to the right.
These courts largely deal with criminal cases but also are involved in civil cases such as domestic violence protection orders, landlord-tenet disputes and small claims cases. Issues that have chafed Republicans like rulings that found laws limiting abortion funding or limiting access to voting unconstitutional or rulings finding Gov. Mike Dunleavy had failed to follow the law on several occasions are handled in the Alaska Supreme Court and Superior Courts, which are both protected from political interference by the Legislature by the Alaska Constitution and would be unaffected by this bill.
The Alaska Judicial Council and Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct both submitted fiscal notes that estimated the legislation’s new requirements, which would add ethics reviews of the court system’s 38 magistrates among other new tasks, would cost roughly $140,000 per year. The Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct, which currently has only an executive director and one assistant, expects the bill to increase their oversight function “by more than 50%.”
The Alaska Court System, which has taken the rare position of opposing the legislation because it opposes ideological tests on judges, issued an indeterminate fiscal note. The courts noted the changes could create vacancies on the bench lasting as long as 18 months that would require the hiring of temporary judges, which could be even more expensive than a sitting judge in some cases because they would be reimbursed for housing and travel costs.
Shower and the other Republicans griped that they hadn’t had enough time to review the fiscal notes, which were provided to the Legislature last Thursday, and said they ultimately believed—without actually citing evidence—that everything can be absorbed with current resources.
“We believe most of the workload could be absorbed,” Shower said. “There’s no doubt that there’s some tension between the judicial side of this debate, if you will, and the legislative side. I still think it’s possible to absorb the workload but it’s possible that there could be some extra.”
Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl opposed zeroing out the fiscal notes as well as moving the bill. He said that like it or not the bill creates additional work that needs to be done and said it looked like the request from the Judicial Council was a lowball for the work required.
“They’re real, they’re there. If we’re going to add the work, it costs money,” he said, later adding, “It doesn’t change the work that has to be done. It’s more government for worse results. I guess that’s a problem in my mind.”
Why it matters: Shower acknowledged that the committee is just one step in the overall process and the issue would likely resurface in other committees, but the action in zeroing out the fiscal notes could help the bill skirt further scrutiny in the Senate. Typically, any and all bills with non-zero fiscal notes get a stop in the Senate Finance Committee, but Senate Bill 14 is not currently slated to stop there. That’s important not just because of the bill’s relatively small price tag but because the Senate Finance Committee is far more moderate and could make other changes to their legislation or bar it from advancing altogether.
Unless there’s a change, the bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.
Opponents of the measure argue that Alaska’s judicial selection system has done well to keep politics out of the courts, but backers of the measure like Shower, Hughes and Reinbold argue that politics are already in the courts because the courts have struck down their legislation as unconstitutional. Both Shower and Reinbold have claimed that the Legislature should have supremacy over all other branches and that their laws should be automatically be considered constitutional.
“To think you don’t have an impact when you strike down a bill that the Legislature passed or an initiative that the people passed and just strike it down with no accountability at all,” Reinbold said. “That’s a concern. … What’s the oversight in the courts? … We’re supposed to have legislative supremacy.”