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Alaska GOP leaders should get the message, drop Medicaid suit

  • Author: John Havelock
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 2, 2015

One of the signs of real leadership is the ability to change course when it becomes clear a mistake has been made. One would hope, now that Judge Frank Pfiffner has been affirmed by the Alaska Supreme Court, that rather than wasting hundreds of thousands more of taxpayer's dollars, in a time of budgetary crisis, the Legislative Council would drop its ill-considered litigation against Medicaid expansion. After reading the rejection grounds articulated in Pfiffner's opinion, any litigant would hesitate before proceeding further. And it's not like Pfiffner, appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell, is some kind of liberal.

"Ill-considered" is the applicable word even though most Alaskans would use harsher terms. Who among Alaskans, annoyed by some state-federal action, would hire a high cost law firm from Outside, unfamiliar with Alaska law, to enter a state constitutional tangle after two, experienced, domestic lawyers, on payroll, as well as the state attorney general, sworn to uphold the constitution as his first duty, and dozens of interested private attorneys chatting the question over lunch, had already concluded there was no winning case? Pfiffner's opinion affirms, applying injunction tests, the committee suffered no irreparable harm and the plaintiffs' win on merits is improbable. What law firm gave these council members, none of whom regrettably is a lawyer, a green light, telling them they would win? It's pretty clear, none.

For starters, why bother first with an injunction application? Where is their irreparable harm? Anyone can see where the harm is -- to the thousands denied medical coverage. The injunction application does not pass the snicker test -- it was a frivolous waste of public money, its appeal more so.

When a high-value constitutional issue is at stake, a legislative committee is not the party to respond. Local attorney James Gottstein, thinking these same 10 legislators erred in entering into a sweetheart building lease without competitive bidding, filed suit as a citizen-taxpayer. As a taxpayer, he must pay for the suit out of his own pocket. How do these legislators get to file a suit when the standard procedure is to leave it to a complaining citizen?

The council is using an appropriation for legislative operations that does not mention this suit. More damning, informal polling indicates the suit lacks legislative majority support. Apparently, the committee has at least half a million in spare change to file frivolous suits.

Given the strange origins of this lawsuit, the historic reluctance of Alaskans ever to reject federal funds, the absence of support, it is hardly surprising some citizens, writing to the Alaska Dispatch News, have suggested the driver for this suit comes from Outside ideological interests. It would be interesting to track the sources of the suit, the person nominating the law firm, the rates to be charged, the relation to the oligarchs who hold so much sway over American politics.

However, let's give these legislators the benefit of the doubt, if they are wise enough now to recognize their mistake and get on to the real problem facing the state: the crash in state oil revenues and coming budget crisis.

Rejecting Pfiffner, the 10 now ask all the lawyers and the Alaska Supreme Court to continue to spend hundreds of thousands on a losing case. Please, accept what the judge has said, dismiss the action and return to the reality of the state's budget situation.

John Havelock, former Alaska attorney general and retired director of legal studies for the University of Alaska has been a longtime student of constitutional law and public policy management.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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