Backers of the effort to recall Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy got a win Friday from Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth, who rejected arguments by state lawyers that the basis for recall was legally insufficient.
Though Aarseth’s ruling allows the Recall Dunleavy campaign to move forward, opponents are expected to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.
The recall effort had been on hold since the Alaska Division of Elections, based on advice from Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, decided in November that the initiative did not meet legal standards.
Aarseth disagreed and reversed that decision.
“This court declines to restrict the voter’s right to affirmatively step into, admonish and disapprove of elected officials’ conduct in office,” he said, laying out the justification for his ruling.
“The recall process is fundamentally a political process. This is not an issue for the judicial branch to decide whether the governor should stay in office or not,” Aarseth said. “This is a question for the voters, and the (Alaska) Constitution makes that very clear.”
At a news conference Friday evening, Dunleavy said he disagreed with Aarseth’s decision and would appeal the ruling.
“If this is to stand, what happens now is there’s really no standard, no hurdle to be recalled,” Dunleavy said. “This becomes a political recall, and you can be recalled for any reason at all.”
Lawyers for the state, as well as a group formed to defend Dunleavy called Stand Tall With Mike, contested the recall campaign’s ballot language: Ballot statements can only be 200 words long, and they said in its current form the language is too vague and broad.
Brewster Jamieson, one of the lawyers for Stand Tall With Mike, argued that since the language in the recall initiative isn’t specific enough, it amounts to unfair innuendos.
“They lack particularity, they engage in a redefinition of the statutory grounds, and they attack discretionary acts and non-existent laws,” he said.
Jamieson and a lawyer from the state argued that because terms like “neglect” and “incompetence” are not defined in the ballot language, the Recall Dunleavy Campaign leaves the charges open to interpretation.
“(The Recall Dunleavy campaign) should not be allowed to present the signers and voters with a sudoku puzzle, which is effectively what they are doing,” Jamieson said. “This renders the entire application void.”
Lawyers for the recall campaign attempted to show that the state had wrongfully dismissed their initiative, laying out a case that the effort is well within legal precedent over how Alaska law has been interpreted in similar instances.
Arguing on behalf of the campaign, Jahna Lindemuth, the former state attorney general under Gov. Bill Walker, said the current administration and attorney general have sought to quash the recall by “changing the rules of the game” when it comes to past legal decisions.
“This is not a recall based on policy disagreements, but actual violations of the law, and those allegations are alleged with particularity,” Lindemuth said.
Lindemuth explained that, while the 200-word explanation in the measure might seem quite general, there are dozens of pages in court filings and plenty of press coverage that fully describe the violations. She covered all five of the incidents the campaign says demonstrate “neglect of duties, incompetence, and lack of fitness” on the part of the governor.
And since terms like “neglect,” “incompetence,” and “lack of fitness” are not spelled out under the law, court precedent dictates they be interpreted liberally, according to the plaintiffs.
“The grounds are not defined in statute, and the Alaska Supreme Court has said in the absence of a statutory definition you must construe according to the common meaning, and the dictionaries are a useful starting point,” Lindemuth said.
The judge had already read the legal briefs from both sides, and after oral arguments it only took 10 minutes before he returned to the bench and gave the recall campaign the green light to move forward. Aarseth said that signature booklets have to be sent out by Feb. 10, although that could be slowed down if opponents are granted a stay by the Alaska Supreme Court.
Recall Dunleavy organizers said they plan on proceeding with the next phase of signature gathering, unless the court intervenes. They now need to get support from 71,252 qualified voters in order to bring the recall to an election.
Dunleavy was set to address supporters at a Stand Tall With Mike fundraiser Friday evening in Anchorage, along with high-profile Republicans like former Alaska Senate President Pete Kelly and businessman John Binkley.
Alaska Public Media’s Nat Herz contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.