ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – In a combination of in-courtroom and teleconference proceedings, attorneys presented oral arguments to the Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday to determine if a recall election can proceed against Governor Mike Dunleavy.
The Alaska Division of Elections had initially rejected Recall Dunleavy’s petition and after the campaign sued in January to overturn that rejection, Anchorage Superior Court agreed and ordered that the voter signature gathering efforts could proceed even while both parties awaited the outcome of this supreme court hearing.
The justices, three present in court, and two calling in remotely, said the threat of Covid-19 spurred the changes to what would normally be a full courtroom of onlookers and media along with required court personnel.
The two attorneys, Margaret Paton-Walsh, arguing on behalf of the state against the recall, and Jahna Lindemuth, a former Alaska attorney general under former-Governor Bill Walker, represented Recall Dunleavy.
Paton-Walsh began her oral arguments by characterizing the recall effort as politically motivated and that the governor’s actions do not rise to the level necessitating a recall vote.
Lindemuth argued that Dunleavy’s actions didn’t need to cause harm to fit the justifications under Alaska stature for recall. The grounds submitted by Recall Dunleavy are legally sufficient, said Lindemuth, and it should then be left to voters to decide whether the governor is recalled.
Recall Dunleavy submitted four grounds for Dunleavy’s removal. They claim Dunleavy, a Republican, broke Alaska law by refusing to appoint a judge to the Palmer Superior Court within 45 days of receiving nominations; violated separation of powers by improperly using line-item vetoes to attack the court system after an abortion ruling he did not like; vetoing funding that prevented the Legislature from upholding its constitutional health, education and welfare responsibilities and that he improperly used state funds on electronic political ads and campaign mailers.
While Paton-Walsh acknowledged that Dunleavy had violated state statute when he failed to appoint a judge in one jurisdiction within the required time period, she said he eventually did make an appointment and that no real harm came from the delay.
She used the same explanation when discussing the administration’s mistake in vetoing $18 million in funding that triggered a loss in matching federal funding for education and Medicaid. Paton-Walsh argued that again, no harm done as the Legislature corrected the mistake after the fact in its own budget deliberations, as is the duty of that branch of government.
When Paton-Walsh asked why the governor breaking the 45-day statute should be grounds enough for a recall election, Justice Craig Stowers responded.
“Perhaps because the governor is charged with applying the laws faithfully,” Stowers said. “The statute requires appointment within 45 days.”
He also pointed out that other governors faced with similar deadlines and dislikes of a list of potential appointees dragged their feet to the last hour but still met the mandated deadline.
A majority of the state’s argument focused on lack of harm and on the 200-word statement that the Division of Elections is required to place on the ballet for each side.
Paton-Walsh argued that the recall campaign is being allowed to reference other reading materials outside of the 200 words to justify the recall while the official being recalled only has a more strict 200 words to make their case to not be pulled from office. This, she said, violates due process by not providing a balance on both sides of the discussion for voters to consider at the ballot box.
At the end of oral arguments, Stowers said the court would take the case under advisement and provide a ruling at a later date. Representatives of Recall Dunleavy thought the court may make a summary decision Wednesday evening or even Thursday morning.
In addition to Stowers, Justices Daniel Winfree, Warren Matthews, Susan Carney and retired justice Robert Eastaugh who replaced Chief Justice Joel Bolger.
Bolger recused himself from the case since he was outspoken in the media when Dunleavy used a line item veto to reduce funding to the courts after he disagreed with a ruling and one of the reasons Recall Dunleavy sites as justification for recall.
Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of continuing the recall process, it does not necessarily ensure that a recall election will be held. Recall Dunleavy needs to collect 71,252 signatures from registered Alaska voters. Claire Pywell, the campaign manager for Recall Dunleavy, said that the campaign had thus far collected approximately 40% of the required signatures.
The signature gathering has been slowed by the public gathering restrictions to help stop the spread of Covid-19, but those who wish to sign can still do so by requesting a booklet mailed to their homes.
Petition booklets would need to be submitted 180 days before Dunleavy leaves office and signatures would need to be certified by the Alaska Division of Elections. If the Supreme Court rules promptly, that could allow a special recall election – a straight up or down vote – as soon as Alaska’s primary election Aug. 18.