A state judge reaffirmed Wednesday that government-related e-mails Gov. Sarah Palin and her staff sent from private accounts must be preserved and ordered further arguments over whether to halt the use of such accounts for state business.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Craig Stowers refused to immediately order Palin and her staff to quit using private e-mail accounts for state work and instead told attorneys in the case to present written arguments on the propriety of the practice and on which e-mails were public records.
Stowers made the decision in a lawsuit brought by Anchorage resident Andree McLeod against Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee.
McLeod contends that public records could be lost if the e-mails are not archived in the state system.
Palin has occasionally used private e-mail accounts to conduct state business, and her Yahoo accounts were hacked last month. The hacking showed that the use of private e-mail accounts could make state business vulnerable to being exposed.
It was not widely known that the governor and her staff were using private e-mail accounts until McLeod filed the first of several open records requests earlier this year that yielded some of the e-mail traffic. Alaska officials blacked out much of it, citing privacy reasons.
McLeod is suing to preserve the records so they will be available for her open records request to review the e-mails.
Her attorney, Don Mitchell, said Wednesday that public access to the messages is obstructed because they cannot be obtained through channels set up under public records law.
"Absent an order from this court, they are not available," Mitchell said.
Assistant Attorney General Mike Mitchell said Palin no longer uses private e-mail to conduct state business. He did not know if others in Palin's office were using private accounts, and Stowers ordered him to find out.
McLeod attorney Don Mitchell, citing a newspaper account, said he was astonished to learn that the governor's staff may still be using private e-mail accounts, despite the difficulty that has been demonstrated in asking e-mail providers to retrieve them from as far back as December 2006, when Palin took office.
Stowers last week ordered the attorney general to contact Yahoo and other private carriers to preserve any e-mails sent and received on employee accounts. If the e-mails were destroyed when the accounts were deactivated, he directed state officials to have the companies attempt to resurrect them.
McLeod's attorney Don Mitchell called the use of private e-mails a "cutout system that has the happy consequence of not making these records readily available."
"The result of this policy is obstruction," he said.
But Stowers was careful not to rule on the merits of using private e-mail, or what was a public record that needed to be preserved, without giving the state time to respond.
Stowers said he was satisfied that measures he ordered would preserve e-mail messages.
He gave attorney Don Mitchell 10 days to file briefs on the questions and the state 10 days after that to respond.