News-Miner Opinion

Goodbye, liberal 9th Circuit: Alaskans should cheer President Trump’s reshaping of the oft-maligned court

News-Miner opinion: We have a complaint to register against President Donald Trump regarding his judicial appointments.

Because of his nominations, Alaskans might not be able to pick on the left-leaning U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals any longer. That’s because the president has made it not so left-leaning.

President Trump has appointed, and the Senate has confirmed, eight judges to the San Francisco-based appellate court.

The most recent confirmation came Nov. 6, when the Senate voted 73-17 to approve the appointment of Judge Danielle J. Hunsaker. That confirmation filled the last of the 9th Circuit’s authorized 29 judgeships.

Now, with those eight appointments by President Trump, Republican presidents have appointed 13 of the 29 judges. President George W. Bush placed five judges on the court. Of the 16 appointed by Democratic presidents, President Bill Clinton appointed nine and President Barack Obama appointed seven.

The 9th Circuit is geographically the largest in the nation, serving these eight states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Why should Alaskans care about who serves on this distant federal court? Because Alaska has some thorny federal issues that bedevil the state to this day.

The federal government, for example, owns 60% of the land in Alaska. Land use and access here continues to be shaped by two major federal laws — the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

ANCSA cleared away the land claims of Alaska Natives so construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline could begin. It also established the regional Alaska Native corporations to manage the 44 million acres and $963 million the government paid to extinguish those land claims. The law’s provisions for subsistence hunting and fishing, however, conflict with the Alaska Constitution’s wording on the use of natural resources.

ANILCA, the still-controversial environmental legacy of President Jimmy Carter, turned more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska into new or expanded conservation units. In doing so, it also brought along the land use and management rules of agencies such as the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Interpretation of the rules in both of those landmark laws, as is often the case, falls to the courts. The case of Anchorage huner John Sturgeon is a recent example. In that case, the Supreme Court earlier this year overturned a 9th Circuit ruling, writing in a 30-page ruling that the 9th Circuit misinterpreted ANILCA when it ruled that Park Service rangers had the authority to cite Mr. Sturgeon for using a hovercraft to travel on the Nation River through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The high court ruled that rivers that flow through national parks in Alaska aren’t part of the park units and aren’t subject to National Park Service rules.

That’s just one example.

The 9th Circuit has long been criticized as having its decisions overturned by the Supreme Court at a high rate. Research by the fact-check organization Politifact from 2017, using data from 2010-2015, shows the 9th Circuit had the third-highest reversal rate among the 13 circuit courts — 79% of its cases were overturned. The Supreme Court only agrees to hear about 100 to 150 cases each of the several thousand it is asked to review annually, meaning that many more 9th Circuit cases likely could be overturned if the justices only had the time to review them.

What does it mean? Does it mean the 9th Circuit’s previously liberal-leaning majority had a philosophical bent that showed up in is reading of the law? It would seem so.

President Trump’s eight appointments may have put an end to that. And that could be good for Alaska.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at Contact the editor with questions at or call 459-7574.

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