Alaska Supreme Court hears arguments in Dunleavy recall case
Allegations made against Gov. Mike Dunleavy by those seeking to recall him from office are insufficient or fail to show his actions caused any harm, an attorney for the state Division of Elections argued before the Alaska Supreme Court Wednesday.
The state contends Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth too loosely interpreted recall standards in ruling the recall effort could advance and has asked the Supreme Court to reverse his decision. The Recall Dunleavy campaign says the recall laws should be read in favor of letting Alaskans vote on the matter.
The Supreme Court did not immediately rule.
Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh, representing the elections office, urged the court Wednesday to interpret the laws consistent with the goal of a for-cause recall system. That goal, she said, “is surely to permit the removal from office only of individuals who really should not be in positions of power, not just anyone who is less than ideal ... .”
The grounds for recall in Alaska are lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties or corruption.
The Recall Dunleavy campaign said the governor violated the law by not appointing a judge within a required time frame, misused state funds for partisan online ads and mailers and improperly used his veto authority to “attack the judiciary.” The group also says Dunleavy mistakenly vetoed more funds than he told lawmakers he intended to cut and that the action could have cost the state Medicaid funds if not corrected.
In court documents, state attorneys said the recall campaign’s statement of grounds are inadequate and can only be sufficient if the court construes the terms “so liberally as to erase their meaning and render Alaska’s recall system as pure politics based on policy differences.”
Attorneys for the recall campaign, in court documents, say the state is seeking to impose stricter new requirements that “have no support in any prior case or the legislative history of the recall statute.”
Anger over budget cuts Dunleavy proposed last year helped fuel the recall push. But Jahna Lindemuth, an attorney for the recall campaign and a former state attorney general, said the case isn’t about mere policy disagreements.
Paton-Walsh, in speaking about the judicial appointment, said there’s no allegation that Dunleavy didn’t appoint a judge or that there was any impact. “So what we have is, the governor refused to meet a statutory deadline. Why is that a reason to remove him from office?” she said.
“Perhaps because the governor is charged with applying the laws faithfully,” Justice Craig Stowers said.
Dunleavy eventually made the appointment, after a meeting last year with Chief Justice Joel Bolger. Dunleavy at the time said the meeting provided “important clarification” on the nominations process that he was seeking when he delayed the appointment.
Bolger recused himself from the recall case.
Justices peppered Paton-Walsh and Lindemuth with questions Wednesday. Both appeared by telephone, as did several justices, amid concerns with the coronavirus.
Stowers asked Lindemuth about the Medicaid issue, and Lindemuth conceded the Legislature fixed it.
“But the fact that the Legislature corrected the mistake later down the line doesn’t mean that the governor is off scot-free and that this can’t be grounds for recall,” she said, calling Dunleavy’s actions a “serious mistake.”
The Division of Elections in November rejected the recall application. Aarseth later ruled the recall effort could proceed.
The Supreme Court allowed recall backers to begin a new signature-gathering phase while the appeal was being considered.