ACLU sues Dunleavy over ‘retaliatory’ cuts to court system

ACLU of Alaska’s Executive Directer Joshua Decker announcing the group’s lawsuit beside plaintiff Bonnie Jack (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media, Anchorage).

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing Governor Mike Dunleavy over what it says is an unconstitutional and retaliatory move against the state’s court system. The group says a veto by the governor last month threatens the separation of powers between the three branches of government.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday at a state superior court in Anchorage, seeks to restore $334,700 to the Alaska Court System that were among Dunleavy’s 182 line-item vetoes.

The lawsuit seeks to reverse the funding cut and declare the action illegal under state law.

“The governor’s action is so brazen and so unprecedented. All of our previous governors knew not to play politics with our judges. And so that is why we’re suing today,” said ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker during a press conference Wednesday morning.

According to the ACLU, this is the first case in Alaska challenging the constitutionality of a veto directed at another branch of government.

In a budget document from June, Dunleavy said he vetoed the court system funding because the state Supreme Court has ruled that Medicaid funds can be used to pay for abortions. According to the administration, since both the legislative and executive branches oppose public money going toward terminating pregnancies, the annual cost for so-called elective abortions should be born by the one branch upholding the policy.

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, that amounts to retaliation, and infringes on an independent judiciary.

“The governor cannot impermissibly interfere with the functions of another co-equal branch,” Decker said. “We also expect this case to make clear that a governor may not use the veto power to re-appropriate money from one legislative appropriative function to another legislatively appropriative function.”

Even if the cut to the court system is ultimately overturned by legislators with other vetoed items, the ACLU is still likely to ask for a ruling on the matter.

The case was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs, Bonnie Jack and John Kauffman, both of Anchorage.

Dunleavy spokesperson Matt Shuckerow pointed to broad authority for Alaska’s executive branch to issue budget vetoes, but said Wednesday afternoon that the governor’s office does not comment on pending litigation.

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