Legislature(2021 - 2022)BUTROVICH 205
05/05/2021 01:30 PM Senate JUDICIARY
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SB 129-ELECTION PAMPHLET INFORMATION RE JUDGES 1:33:45 PM CHAIR HOLLAND announced the consideration of SENATE BILL NO. 129, "An Act relating to information on judicial officers provided in election pamphlets." 1:34:02 PM SENATOR MYERS, speaking as the sponsor, said SB 129 would provide voters with additional information on judges standing for judicial retention. Judges cannot campaign, so voters often lack information on judges' backgrounds. Since the Alaska Judicial Council collects information on judges, SB 129 will require additional background information be included in the Division of Election voter pamphlet. 1:35:22 PM THERESA WOLDSTAD, Staff, Senator Robert Myers, Alaska State Legislature, Juneau, Alaska, began a PowerPoint on SB 129 on behalf of the sponsor. She paraphrased slide 2 related to the judicial merit selection retention system: Alaska established a three-part judicial merit selection and retention system. 1. Alaska Judicial Council screens and nominates judicial applicants based on the candidate's moral character, professional competence, and legal experience. 2. Alaska governor appoints from the list provided by the Alaska Judicial Council. 3. Alaska state voters determine whether a judicial officer will remain on the bench during retention elections. MS. WOLDSTAD reviewed the Alaska Judicial Council recommendations on slide 3: • The Alaska Judicial Council conducts extensive performance evaluations, interviews, and public hearings. • Surveys assess judicial integrity, temperament, diligence, impartiality, legal ability, and administrative skills • Based upon their research the council will decide if they will recommend a judicial officer's retention to the public. • The Judicial Council's recommendation is published in the Alaska Official Election Pamphlet. 1:37:01 PM MS. WOLDSTAD reviewed slide 4, Judicial Retention and Election Pamphlets, which depicted information on judicial retention that is typically included in the election pamphlet. MS. WOLDSTAD directed attention to the table on slide 5, that summarizes information the Alaska Judicial Council compiled from the Judicial Performance Evaluation it conducted. She pointed out that the Alaska Judicial Council recommendation indicates whether the judge should be retained. MS. WOLDSTAD reviewed the table on slide 6, Alaska Judicial Council Recommendations and Retention Votes. She reported that voters retained judges about 33 percent of the time when the Alaska Judicial Council recommended a "No" vote. However, it sometimes takes two election cycles before the judges are voted out. The sponsor surmised that voters might need additional information on judicial performance to make informed decisions at the polls. 1:38:06 PM MS. WOLDSTAD read the goal of the bill shown on slide 7. • The success of the system is based upon providing the electorate critical information to make informed decisions regarding judicial retention. • This legislation will add additional information already collected by the Alaska Judicial Council to the Alaska Official Election Pamphlet. • Information shall be provided except when required by law to be kept confidential. • We are currently working [with] the Alaska Court System, Division of Elections, and the Alaska Judicial Council to assess word limitations and potential information to be provided. CHAIR HOLLAND asked if the sponsor would like to present the sectional analysis of the bill. 1:38:59 PM SENATOR MYERS answered no. He stated that he would like to provide the bill concept today, that he anticipates some amendments to the bill, including ones the division and court system suggested. He stated his intention to fine-tune the bill by adding specificities, such as the judges' affirmation rates on appeals, the types of clients, or the cases they handled in their attorney practices. He explained typical affirmation rates for judges often range in the 80 percent range, so voters may wish to review judges whose rates are 60 percent or lower. This downward trend may indicate a lack of voter trust. One goal of SB 129 is to restore trust and to better inform voters on judicial performance. He suggested that some information, such as the law school they attended and the types of clients they served, may be relevant when initially assessing judges. However, that information may not be needed for subsequent retention elections. 1:44:26 PM SENATOR HUGHES asked what type of information might be relevant for the first retention but not subsequent ones. She wondered if it would raise any constitutional issues to differentiate between them. SENATOR MYERS responded that it might be helpful to know the judges' primary practice areas and their primary clients for the first retention election. Once someone has years of judicial experience, what they did 20 years ago seemed superfluous and the court system agreed that information might not be as relevant. 1:46:28 PM SENATOR SHOWER suggested that the trend indicates people want to be more informed about government. People tend not to know as much about the judiciary, so providing more information on judges could be beneficial. He offered his view that providing more transparency in the system could help restore public faith. 1:48:17 PM SENATOR KIEHL recalled some items that he considered adding to the voter pamphlet. He asked what value voters would get from knowing which law school judges attended. He wondered if this means someone who goes to a prestigious law school will receive additional consideration. SENATOR MYERS recalled that there are about 3,000 universities in the US, but only about  law schools, so it's a more limited pool. He acknowledged that the location could create bias, but it could also provide a perspective on the judges that voters may find helpful. 1:51:21 PM SENATOR KIEHL asked what level of granular information on their clients is needed. He stated that he does not judge or select his doctors based on the patients they may have treated. SENATOR MYERS said the point is not to single out specific clients. Still, it may be relevant to know the general area of law an attorney practices to highlight the attorney's experience brought to the bench. For example, it would be pertinent to know if the judges spent most of their legal practice representing oil companies or plaintiffs. 1:53:14 PM SENATOR HUGHES pointed out that the election pamphlet already lists education and political involvement in the biographical information. She asked if the candidate or the Alaska Judicial Council provided that information. She surmised that the current information was at the discretion of the judicial candidates. SENATOR MYERS acknowledged the information on the left side of slide 4 was discretionary information the judicial candidates provided to the Division of Elections. The Alaska Judicial Council provides judicial evaluation information per specific requirements. He suggested perhaps melding the two pages by developing discretionary and mandatory requirements. The surveys from the Alaska Judicial Council are available to the public on the council's website, but it does take time to find them. 1:56:59 PM NANCY MEADE, General Counsel, Administrative Offices, Alaska Court System, Anchorage, Alaska, stated that the court system has been working with the sponsor to address privacy and security concerns. Still, it is not opposed to the bill as currently written. She stated her intent to continue to work with the sponsor on SB 129. 1:57:40 PM SENATOR HUGHES asked if those concerns could be remedied. She asked her to elaborate on the privacy and security concerns. MS. MEADE referred to page 2, lines 15 to 16, subparagraph (H), which would require the justices or judges to disclose clients and employers of members of the justice's or judge's household. She surmised that some spouses might not wish to disclose their clients. Further, disclosing information could create security concerns, including reporting that a judge's child works at a coffee shop. Additionally, some spouses and adult children have different levels of privacy needs and security concerns and will not want their information published. 1:58:58 PM SENATOR SHOWER acknowledged privacy concerns but wanted to ensure that a balance was struck. He suggested that the bill be as transparent as possible within specific parameters. He said public officials should be required to submit to a certain level of disclosure. 2:01:09 PM SUSANNE DIPIETRO, Executive Director, Alaska Judicial Council, Alaska Court System, Anchorage, Alaska, echoed Ms. Meade's comment that she has been working with the sponsor to address issues. She explained that in 1978, the Alaska Judicial Council first received the authority to put information about judges standing for retention in the Division of Elections' voter pamphlets. At that time, the council's submission was limited to approximately 300 words. The council's evaluation process was less comprehensive. The council conducted a survey to determine what information voters wanted before voting. Voters responded that the voter pamphlet information was helpful, but they wanted more details. Since then, the council has built up the information in the voter pamphlet to 600 words. The council carefully considers what information best reflects the actual performance of judges. The council has increased the evaluation process, conducting outreach by posting information on social platforms and conducting five user surveys instead of only two to three that it undertook initially. These surveys are sent to jurors, court employees and the public. 2:03:59 PM MS. DIPIETRO stated that feedback the council receives indicates that many voters overlook judges in the voter pamphlet, so the council provides three layers of information on its website to provide more detailed information. Besides the council's social media page, it uses limited paid advertising and conducts numerous presentations to community groups and via television. The council's efforts to reach voters are ongoing but can always be improved. At the sponsor's request, she reviewed voter participation rates over the past 20 years. The number of voters casting votes for or against appellate judges has increased by 8 to 10 percent. In 2000, about 78 or 80 percent of voters cast ballots for judges. By 2020, it grew to 80 to 86 percent. The council would like it to be 100 percent, she said. In 2020, the voters also cast the highest percentage of yes votes for judges in the past 20 years. She surmised that social media outreach has primarily helped inform voters on judicial retention votes. She said she shares the concerns that Ms. Meade raised on page 2, lines 15 to 16 of SB 129. 2:08:11 PM [SB 129 was held in committee.]