An Anchorage judge on Friday ordered Gov. Sarah Palin and others in her office to retrieve and preserve any e-mails from private accounts that concern state business.
The ruling came in a lawsuit against Palin -- the GOP vice presidential nominee -- filed by Andree McLeod, an Anchorage activist and former state worker.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Craig Stowers called the case "important."
The state is bustling to comply but first has to figure out what e-mails still exist, said Mike Mitchell, assistant attorney general.
"We entered into the hearing ... willing to work to preserve those e-mails that do relate to state business that may have been sent to or from private accounts, to the extent they can be preserved at this point," Mitchell said.
The e-mails need to be retrieved from the private e-mail businesses, brought into the state system, and released "as appropriate under the public records act," Mitchell said.
The case is one of the first in the nation addressing how 20th-century public records laws apply to 21st-century technology like BlackBerrys, he said.
McLeod said state workers generally use the state system because it is more secure, and e-mails are then available for archiving and for public records requests.
"For the governor not to have done so is beyond my understanding," McLeod said. "The only thing I can figure out is yeah, she wanted to keep things secret."
Palin had at least two Yahoo e-mail accounts and one other private e-mail account. The McCain-Palin campaign said her Yahoo accounts were canceled in September after a hacker broke into one of them, posting screen shots of her inbox and a couple of messages onto a publicly available Web site. A Tennessee college student has been charged with accessing her account without authorization.
Web-based services like Yahoo are inherently more vulnerable to hacking than secure business or government services, experts have said.
In addition, an aide, Frank Bailey, helped set up another private e-mail system this spring for Palin and her closest insiders, according to a Washington Post story. In the story, Bailey denied doing so.
Mitchell told the judge on Friday that Palin no longer uses any private accounts for state business. But there's been no directive for the rest of her staff to do the same, said Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for the governor.
It's not clear how widespread the practice of using private accounts for public work has been in the Palin administration. Close to 90 people have worked in the governor's office since Palin took office in December 2006, counting those in the Office of Management and Budget and the lieutenant governor's office. Few have used private e-mail, Leighow said.
McLeod earlier this year requested copies of e-mails from two Palin aides and discovered that the governor routinely used a private e-mail account for public business. She also found that the aides, Bailey and Ivy Frye, at times used private e-mail accounts for state work as well.
On Oct. 1, McLeod sued Palin and the governor's office to force preservation of the e-mails. She also filed a request for all of Palin's e-mails concerning state business since taking office, no matter what e-mail account was used, as well as e-mails from Palin's husband, Todd.
Under the judge's order, the governor's office must preserve all e-mails to or from private accounts of her staff between Dec. 4, 2006, and whenever the litigation concludes "whose content relates in any way to the conduct of official business of the state of Alaska."
In addition, Palin and her staff were ordered "to immediately undertake efforts" to retrieve e-mails and attachments that "Yahoo and other Internet companies have intentionally or automatically deleted."
Mitchell said he'll work with the governor's office and technical support staff to figure out how to pursue those e-mails.
According to Yahoo, once a user deletes an e-mail, "the actual message content may take a couple of days to a couple of months to be completely eliminated from our storage facilities."
Palin earlier turned over e-mails from her Yahoo accounts to the state Department of Law, according to Meghan Stapleton, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign. But it wasn't clear Friday afternoon how many were part of that.
Meanwhile, everyone in the governor's office was e-mailed a copy of the judge's order on Friday and asked to comply with it, according to the governor's administrative director.
McLeod said she was pleased with the ruling. "I think finally someone understood the nature of what is going on here."