Legislators refuse Palin's demand for public vote

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

JUNEAU -- Alaska lawmakers have no intention of agreeing to Gov. Sarah Palin's demand for all senators to vote in public on her appointment of Tim Grussendorf to the state Senate. That's set up a showdown with no clear resolution, and talk of a potential court battle between the Legislature and the governor.

"The governor could sue us, we could sue the governor, there are all sorts of options," Senate President Gary Stevens said Friday. "The Democratic Party could sue. We're not at that point yet; we're just still trying to figure out what the options are."

Palin said Thursday she did not accept the decision by the state Senate Democrats to reject her appointment of Grussendorf to fill the seat that opened when Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton resigned for an Obama administration job.

The governor, citing a 1987 legal opinion, said the decision wasn't valid because it happened behind closed doors and only among the Senate Democrats. She sent a letter to Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, asking for a public vote of the full Senate, which is composed of 10 Republicans and nine Democrats.

Stevens, who leads a bipartisan majority coalition in the Senate, said it's up to the Senate Democrats to figure out what happens next. Anchorage Democrat Johnny Ellis, the Senate majority leader, said a full vote of the Senate isn't in the cards.

"I have no plan to do that," Ellis said.

Ellis said he needs to talk with the Legislature's lawyer, Tam Cook, before charting his next move. Democratic senators maintain that they've lawfully rejected Grussendorf and that Palin must name another appointee within eight days.

"We'll be waiting for that appointment," said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski. "And if that appointment doesn't come, that will be (a) breach of the law."

Republican Senate President Stevens said he doesn't want to vote on the governor's appointee to a Democratic seat, out of fear that it would create a precedent that would come back to bite when a Republican seat needs to be filled.

"I would not want the Democrats to help decide who that replacement would be," Stevens said. "We don't want to put something into practice that we're going to be stuck with for years, because it could affect me just as badly next time around."

Stevens himself, and several other members of the Legislature, were appointed by governors and confirmed in the same way that Palin is now challenging.

Palin said it's too soon to say if she will sue the Legislature over the appointment.

"We remain hopeful Mr. Grussendorf will be confirmed and until there is action by the Senate, it is too soon to comment on any next step," said the governor's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow.

The 1987 legal opinion cited by Palin was issued by the state Department of Law. The opinion challenges the constitutionality of the state law that sets out how lawmakers should confirm a governor's appointee to an open legislative seat.

The law says the appointee "shall be a member of the same political party as that which nominated the predecessor in office, and shall be subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the legislature who are members of the same political party which nominated the predecessor in office and of the same house as was the predecessor in office."

Since Elton was a Democrat, the nine Senate Democrats decided whether to seat Grussendorf. They rejected him in a closed-door meeting Wednesday.

The 1987 legal opinion said the Constitution says that it's up to the Senate to decide the qualifications of its members, not just the senators who represent a particular party.

The opinion also said that an appointee can be confirmed only at a formal session of the Senate, not at a closed-door meeting of senators from one party, Palin said.

The 1987 opinion was issued after the death of Fairbanks Republican Sen. Don Bennett. Then-Gov. Steve Cowper, a Democrat, appointed the late senator's wife, Beverly Bennett, to take his place. The Senate Republicans voted in a closed caucus meeting to reject Bennett, and Cowper sued based on the legal opinion.

The Republicans countersued. But the legal case was never resolved. The controversy was settled when Bennett dropped out of consideration and Cowper and the Republicans agreed on a different appointee, Ken Fanning.

The appointee at the heart of the current controversy, Grussendorf, isn't saying much. "I don't have a comment on that right now. I'll let the Legislature and the governor decide what they believe," said Grussendorf, who is chief of staff for an influential Democratic senator, Lyman Hoffman of Bethel.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him in Juneau at 907-586-1531.