An Alaska Superior Court judge has rejected Gov. Mike Dunleavy's efforts to block a recall campaign against him.
Judge Eric Aarseth ruled Friday morning that the Recall Dunleavy effort can move forward as planned, but it is expected the state –– working in conjunction with anti-recall campaign Stand Tall with Mike –– will appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Aarseth says the Division of Elections incorrectly rejected the recall effort and that the group's legal reasons for recall are sufficient for the campaign to move forward.
State law designates only a few legal grounds upon which a public official can be recalled: lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties and corruption.
According to Meda DeWitt, chair of the recall effort, the group is going with the first three.
Specifically, the group points to Dunleavy's failure to appoint a Palmer Superior Court judge within the 45-day statutory time frame; the use of his veto power to cut funding for the courts after a ruling on abortion funding with which he disagreed; and the veto of more Medicaid funding than he told the Legislature he originally planned to do, a move which the recall group says is a clear exhibition of incompetence.
"There's also the misuse of state funds where he used money to pay for partisan ads electronically in social media circles and in mailers that promoted or shamed other political figures, like the legislators, thus he was using his government fund to induce behaviors in the Legislature by funding ads," DeWitt said following the recall launch.
Aarseth ruled that all the reasons complied with state law except the veto of health funding, which he noted was up for legislative override and therefore didn't violate the constitutional separation of powers clause as alleged.
In explaining his decision, Aarseth made clear he was only ruling on the validity of the legal grounds according to state statute.
"I’m not making any judgments on whether the elected official is doing a good job or not,” he said, adding that he is in no way advising anyone on whether or not to support the recall.
During Friday's hearing, former State Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, who served under former Gov. Bill Walker, represented the Recall Dunleavy campaign. Chief Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh represented the state, and Brewster Jamieson represented anti-recall campaign Stand Tall with Mike. Each was allowed 30 minutes to defend their case.
In order to trigger a special election, the recall group must collect 71,252 signatures –– or 25% of the number of Alaskans who voted in the last general election. The recall group was required to collect 28,501 signatures to turn in the original recall application; the group turned in 49,006 signatures in September.
Jamieson said the anti-recall campaign will likely request that the signature gathering be placed on hold while the group's appeal plays out. Aarseth said he wouldn't support such a request but that the Supreme Court might.
Claire Pywell, campaign manager for Recall Dunleavy, said the group was thrilled with the ruling.
"This is a big day for over 49,000 Alaskan voices that were heard in court," Pywell said. "We've been headed in the right direction the whole time, and today the court confirmed that. This is a critical step in allowing the people of Alaska to exercise this constitutional right to recall."
Pywell noted the recall group anticipated the state will appeal to the Supreme Court and has prepared for that.
"Ultimately I'm just very excited for when we have those signature booklets and can tell Alaskans where to come sign," she said.
Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills responded to the ruling, confirming that the Department of Law will be seeking resolution from the Supreme Court.
"The Division of Elections is tasked with implementing the law and making determinations, in consultation with the Department of Law, and getting clarity from the Alaska Supreme Court will help in fulfilling its obligations. The Department of Law continues to stand by its analysis in the Attorney General Opinion," Mills wrote in a statement.
"As the Alaska Supreme Court has recognized, Alaska does not have a purely political recall system," she wrote. "We believe the ruling today takes us away from the middle-ground approach intended by the constitutional convention delegates and outlined by the Supreme Court, and it essentially gives us a political recall with no threshold. We look forward to arguing these issues on appeal and receiving the court's direction."
This is the most recent development in a monthslong process launched by the Recall Dunleavy group in August. Here is a timeline of the events so far:
Aug. 1: Recall Dunleavy effort launched.
Sept. 5: Recall group submits 49,006 signatures and legal brief outlining reasons for recall.
Nov. 4: Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, at the advice of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, rejects the group’s proposed legal reasons for recall.
Nov. 5: Recall Dunleavy appeals recall rejection with Anchorage Superior Court and requests expedited case hearing with the courts.
Nov. 14: Scheduling hearing sets oral arguments for Jan. 10.
Jan. 10: Oral hearings and ultimate Superior Court ruling.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.