Creating Alaska

The Origins of Alaska's Judicial System

by Justice Warren Matthews, Alaska Supreme Court

The following is a commentary by Justice Warren W. Matthews on “The Origins of Alaska’s Judicial System.”  It is fifty years ago this month that delegates to Alaska ’s Constitutional Convention were provided with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendations about how the future state’s court system should be organized.

Justice Matthews was appointed to the Alaska Supreme Court in 1977 by Governor Jay Hammond, and is the senior member of the court.

This commentary is one in a series of commentaries on articles of Alaska ’s constitution that are being provided through Creating Alaska in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Alaska ’s Constitutional Convention. It is released today in cooperation with the Alaska Court System.

Fifty years ago this month, the delegates to Alaska’s Constitutional Convention in Fairbanks began debate on one of the first proposals considered for the new constitution: the Judiciary Article. At the time, Alaska was in the fortunate position of being able to adopt many of the best modern practices for the administration of justice. Mindful of this unique opportunity, our constitutional framers adopted a judicial structure that ensures statewide uniformity and minimizes the impact of politics and public pressure on both the selection of judges and the decisions that judges must make. As a member of Alaska’s judiciary, I look back on this achievement as a great legacy for our state.

In adopting Alaska’s Judiciary Article, Convention delegates made several key decisions that have served Alaskans well. Notably, they chose a unified and integrated statewide judicial structure, instead of a multitude of courts operating under regional or local governments. They also provided for centralized judicial administration to better address problems such as case backlog and delay, which had plagued other states. These choices have been recognized nationally as the most efficient and effective models for delivering judicial services.

Most importantly, the framers specified a method for selecting judges that requires screening by a non-partisan judicial council and appointment by the governor. Often referred to as “merit-selection,” this method ensures that appointments to judgeships are based on qualifications, not personal or political ties. “What we are trying to prevent,” according to George McLaughlin, Chair of the Convention’s Committee on the Judicial Branch, “are some of the travesties which have existed in some…states where our judges are picked and plucked directly from the ward political office.” In addition, convention participants were eager to ensure that, in the words of delegate Ralph Rivers, “the judicial council will seek…the best available timber.”

The American Judicature Society, which works to improve the administration of justice, recognizes merit selection as “the best way to choose the best judges.” Alaska was one of the first states to adopt such a system, and remains a model for other jurisdictions.

In choosing merit selection, convention delegates rejected the suggestion that judges should be directly elected. Many believed that electing judges would undermine the objectivity and neutrality that is necessary for fair decision-making, which must be based on the facts and law of a case, not outside pressure. “One of the dangers of the elective system is…that whenever (a judge) makes a decision, he has to keep peering over his shoulder to find out whether it is popular or unpopular,” George McLaughlin argued on the convention floor. “If we determine the validity of our laws in terms of popularity,…we are…not a government of laws on which we pride ourselves.”

Echoing this view was delegate Edward Davis, who had lived in a state with an elective system: “the result was that the judiciary was not and could not be independent…all of us here want an independent judiciary, a judiciary that will not be swayed by the public will at any particular moment, a judiciary that will not be subject to political pressure.”

In related action, delegates were careful to ensure judicial accountability to the public without unduly compromising judicial independence. Judges must stand before voters for retention after three years of service, and periodically thereafter. Also, remedies for judicial incapacity or misconduct were established.

After rigorous and often eloquent debate, convention delegates adopted the Judiciary Article by an overwhelming majority in January 1956. The late Justice Jay Rabinowitz, who served on the Alaska Supreme Court for 32 years, considered this action “probably one of the greatest things that the Constitutional Convention did.”

As we celebrate our constitution’s 50 th anniversary, Alaskans can be grateful for its framers’ commitment to one of the most important cornerstones of democratic government: a strong and independent judiciary. For over half a century, their wisdom has given strength and meaning to the promise of justice for all.