(CN) – The 9th Circuit tossed a lawsuit challenging Alaska’s practice of appointing only attorneys as state judges through a merit-selection process in which attorneys play a significant role.
Three voters sued the seven members of the Alaskan Judicial Council, who select top candidates for the state judiciary and recommend them to the governor, who makes the final appointment.
The council is made up of the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, three lay members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, and three attorneys appointed by the Board of Governors of the Alaska Bar Association.
The lawsuit specifically challenges the authority of these last three members, the attorneys appointed by the board.
“Plaintiffs seek to enjoin operation of the Alaska system because three members of the Judicial Council are appointed by the governing body of the Alaska Bar Association, which is in turn elected by the Bar membership and not by the public at large.”
The voters argue that the role of unelected attorneys in selecting state judges violates their equal protection rights.
The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that Alaska’s merit selection system is constitutional, because the role assigned to lawyers was rationally related to the state’s interest in selecting a qualified judiciary composed of lawyers.
A three-judge panel in Anchorage agreed, ruling that the voters “are hard-pressed to find legal support” for the principle that all participants in the judicial selection process must be either popularly elected or appointed by a popularly elected official.
“Alaska’s founders, when considering the selection of the members of the Judicial Council at the Constitutional Convention, discussed these tensions and resolved the debate in favor of the expertise that attorneys could bring to the process,” Judge Mary Schroeder wrote. “The Equal Protection Clause, as long interpreted by the federal courts, does not preclude Alaska from making that choice.”