Alaska Attorney General John Burns announced his surprise resignation Friday after less than a year as the state's top lawyer, saying the all-consuming demands of the job meant he couldn't spend enough time with his family in Fairbanks.
"Although I have come to realize that it is possible to live out of a suitcase, doing so is neither fair to family nor particularly conducive to one's health," Burns said in his resignation letter to Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who appointed him last Nov. 30. "Family and balance in one's life should always be one's first priority and everything else secondary."
Legislators said they had not seen his resignation coming, and when public officials resign abruptly in order to "spend more time with the family," it always raises questions. But Burns has two daughters at home, and with the Department of Law based in Anchorage and Juneau, he said his attempt to maintain a life based in Fairbanks was a stretch.
"I think he's an honest hard-working guy who found it to be way more demanding than he could make room for in his life," said Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Burns' resignation follows recent court defeats of Parnell administration challenges to the endangered species listings of polar bears and Cook Inlet beluga whales. French said Burns "inherited a lot of that stuff" when he took the job last year.
"He was a good public servant who seemed to be on a fast learning curve, and (his resignation) is the state's loss," French said.
Senate Majority Leader Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, said he never picked up any tension between Burns and Parnell, and is taking Burns at his word that he just wants to spend more time with family in Fairbanks.
"He seemed pretty hard-working, dedicated to the governor and the governor's agenda. I didn't see any concerns from either side."
Burns said a series of small, personal issues -- "a bundle of sticks," he called them -- contributed to his decision to step down.
Burns said he has a daughter who is a senior in high school and another who is living at home for a while after college. It was not practical to uproot and move from Fairbanks, he said, and commuting to Anchorage and Juneau was tough.
"It's hard when your daughter calls up to ask about applying to colleges, and no time to talk," he said. "It's a lot of things.... I'm also an avid outdoors person and didn't have much of an opportunity to do that this year."
Though the decision to step down had been on his mind for some time, a recent cold snap in Fairbanks, with temperatures at 35 below zero or lower, helped him make up his mind, Burns said. During that time, his wife had to deal with a malfunctioning garage door and a dog that ran away, he said.
Burns' resignation is effective Jan. 2.
POLITICALLY CHARGED CASES
Burns, who told legislators before his confirmation hearing that he was "not a politician," ended up at the center of some of Alaska's most politically polarizing issues. He was Parnell's main representative during an agonizing battle in the Legislature over the state's coastal management program, an assignment that involved late-night negotiating sessions and intensive lobbying. The program ended up dying when no agreement could be reached.
Burns is also involved in the controversial state lawsuit to overturn a new Lake and Peninsula Borough law meant to stop the massive Pebble mine prospect in the Bristol Bay region. Burns said the lawsuit isn't about supporting Pebble but upholding the state's constitutional authority to decide when development is in the best interest of all of Alaska.
In interviews Friday, Burns spoke of protecting "states' rights and sovereignty" as a major focus of his efforts. North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill said he found Burns a strong advocate for states' rights and a thoughtful man who took the job seriously.
Under Burns and his predecessor, Dan Sullivan, who is now Parnell's commissioner of natural resources, the state has aggressively pursued federal issues in the courts, mostly involving environmental matters. Filings from state lawyers, or private attorneys who have been hired by the state, have shown up in federal district courts in Salt Lake City, Pensacola, Fla., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and San Francisco as well as in Washington, D.C., Juneau and Anchorage.
Most of the cases are challenges of federal agency decisions. But the state has also intervened in favor of federal agencies, such as when Southeast Alaska conservation groups sued the Forest Service to prevent Tongass timber sales or when a California organization tried to force the federal government to list ribbon seals as endangered.
The lawsuits may be good politics for the administration as it sides with development interests and others opposed to federal restrictions in Alaska. But the state has experienced prominent setbacks recently in the courts.
The Parnell administration was on the winning side on the Tongass and seal suits, as the judges sided with the federal agencies, but it suffered two big defeats this year over its challenges to endangered species listings of polar bears and Cook Inlet beluga whales.
District judges in Washington, D.C. -- one a Democratic appointee, the other Republican -- said the state had neither the facts nor the law on its side. The state is appealing the polar bear decision and reviewing the beluga whale ruling.
Among accomplishments Burns cited was the recent settlement of the 1997 Kasayulie lawsuit in which a judge had found Alaska's funding of rural schools discriminatory and inadequate. Burns and the state education commissioner signed the settlement last month, which calls for the governor to ask legislators for money to build Western Alaska schools.
In an interview with The Associated Press last December, Burns said he did not apply for the attorney general job and was humbled that Parnell asked him to accept it. He said he spoke with Parnell for the first time about the position a week before being offered the job, after being approached by others to gauge his interest.
Burns on Friday praised Parnell in his resignation letter and in an interview. Parnell sent out a statement accepting his resignation "with reluctance," saying that Burns led the Department of Law with dedication and integrity.
By SEAN COCKERHAM and CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News