Wasilla Rep. Eastman’s trial delves into Oath Keeper ideology

David Eastman R- Wasilla, talks to Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage, on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Rep. David Eastman isn’t accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol nor of attempting to overthrow the government, but if the Wasilla Republican belongs to an organization that did, his legislative career could be over.

A trial is underway in Palmer that could oust Eastman from office over his membership in the Oath Keepers, a group that rose to national prominence in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. The non-jury trial is the very first test of a 66-year-old disloyalty clause in the state Constitution, which says no one can hold office who belongs to an organization that advocates overthrowing the government by force.

The case that has implications not just for Eastman and his constituents but also the limits of the First Amendment right to associate with anti-government groups.

A Mat-Su voter, Randall Kowalke, filed the lawsuit to enforce the disloyalty provision.

“There are only two elements that we need to prove to win the case,” Kowalke’s attorney, Goriune Dudukgian, said in his opening argument Tuesday. “The first element is that Rep. Eastman aids or belongs to the Oath Keepers. And the second element is that the Oath Keepers advocates concrete action to overthrow the U.S. government or has actually engaged in such conduct.”

The first element is easy to prove: Eastman is a founding lifetime member of Oath Keepers, has contributed more than $1,000 and even after Jan. 6 took no steps to resign, Dudukgian said.

To judge by the first day of testimony, most of the case is focused on what the Oath Keepers did leading up to the Capitol assault and what exactly they advocate for. Dudukgian said they combined a dangerous mix of insurrectionist rhetoric and seditious conduct.

“On their public website, the organization advocated for a, quote, bloody revolution against the current administration,” he said. “They said that they were going to, quote, take to arms and fight … . And on January 6, they did exactly what they said they were going to do.”

Eastman’s attorney, Joe Miller, chose to delay his opening argument until after the other side presents its case. But his defense appears to turn on what the Oath Keepers organization is all about, and he maintains it’s not about overthrowing the government.

Some Oath Keepers have been charged with crimes related to Jan. 6. Leader Stewart Rhodes has been convicted of seditious conspiracy. But Miller, in pre-trial arguments and in objections, argued that the charges against individuals aren’t proof of what the Oath Keepers as an organization advocates for.

“The only thing that we know is Stewart Rhodes is the leader,” Miller said. “Otherwise, what we have are just a handful of 33 out of 38,000 Oath Keepers that have been charged with crimes.”

Miller emphasized that the plaintiffs have to prove that Oath Keepers provided “imminent incitement” to violent acts leading to the overthrow of the government. And he notes that the disloyalty disqualification can only apply to conduct that isn’t protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech and free association.

Jon Lewis, an expert in domestic extremism at George Washington University, testified over Zoom to help make the case against Eastman. He called the Oath Keepers one of the largest anti-government militias in the United States. He said they did more than talk.

“My opinion is that both before and during Jan. 6, the Oath Keepers called for and attempted to execute a plan that would have resulted in the overthrow of the U.S. government on Jan. 6,” Lewis testified.

Eastman easily won re-election last month. Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna has put the certification of his election on hold while the case is pending. The uncertainty is one factor complicating the organization of the state House leadership.

Eastman sat beside Miller in the courtroom. Dozens of people watched the livestream of the trial.

Among the witnesses Miller said he’d like to call are Rhodes and other convicted leaders of the Oath Keepers. Miller acknowledged that their incarceration will make their participation difficult.

Alaska Public Media

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