Courtroom hearings on venue change requests don't typically draw much of a crowd, but what the early arrivers at Joe Miller's Monday afternoon court appearance in Fairbanks lacked in numbers, they made up for in exuberance.
"Blankenship was appointed by Frank Murkowski, did you know that?" asked local activist Frank Turney, a Miller supporter, nearly a half-hour before the hearing began. "Most judges would recuse themselves. They could have brought in somebody from Nome, Anchorage, Kotzebue, but no." He paused for a moment and settled into a chair next to the gallery benches. "You know, I'd be bitching even if the shoe was on the other foot."
He was eventually joined by about 30 other Fairbanksans in Courthouse 404 at the Rabinowitz Courthouse, the assembled crowd running the gamut from Carhartt-wearing Miller supporters to lawyers in overcoats to ordinary citizens, some wearing ties, who professed to simple curiosity about the judicial process the case would take. Most filed in and sat quietly.
More coverage from Monday's hearing
Turney made a point of being the exception. Shortly before the hearing began, he pulled a handful of Miller door-hanger ads out of his coat and passed them around to anyone who would take them. "I think they really captured Lisa there with that snarl," he said, pointing to an unflattering picture of Murkowski at the bottom of the ad. Seeing no more takers for the ads, he sat down. "I try to stay out of trouble," he said, "but I get bored."
The gallery full of spectators managed to stay quiet through the relatively short hearing, which saw Superior Court Judge Douglas Blankenship decide to move Miller's suit to the First Judicial District in Juneau. "The ballots and registers are in Juneau," Blankenship said, "and it's likely that there will be factual issues with the ballots."
Turney shook his head as the judge made his ruling, but said afterward that he understood the reasoning behind the decision, particularly the argument that transporting the ballots from Juneau to Fairbanks would be expensive and potentially perilous to the integrity of the process. "To tell the truth, he's one of the fairer judges we have," said Turney, adding that he was still unhappy that Blankenship had chosen not to recuse himself.
In a hastily arranged press gaggle after the hearing, Miller said that he wasn't disappointed in Blankenship's ruling. "I have no disagreement with him," he said, "I appreciated his conscientious approach. We're obviously going to comply with the judge's ruling."
Miller appeared to recognize the possibility that his bid to topple Murkowski may not succeed. "This is not necessarily about winning or losing," he said. "We need to make sure there's a clear standard." He decried what he said was a different standard being applied in practice than in statute, and said that no matter the outcome, he is seeking greater transparency in the electoral process.
Miller's attempts to make the state hold to a narrow interpretation of Alaska law regarding write-in votes puts him in the difficult position of arguing that he is fighting against disenfranchising voters while at the same time holding that a specific set of over 8,000 Alaskans should not have their votes counted. At least one of those Alaskans was on hand Monday afternoon, and as Miller finished his remarks to TV and print reporters, she unloaded on him. "I feel disenfranchised by what you're doing here," said Joanna Pippenger. "I wrote 'Lisa Murkowski -- Republican' because she is a Republican."
Miller replied that regardless of how any particular vote was cast, the state needs to apply a consistent standard, but his answer fell short of satisfying Pippenger, who paced in the courtroom hallway after Miller and his attorney, Thomas Van Flein, had departed for the elevators. "I wish I would have said, 'You should concede,'" she said. "Yes, this statute needs to be addressed. But I believe that the people's votes should be counted."
Nearby, Fairbanksan Sage Fabrizio expressed similar sentiments. "This guy is just scary. He's promoting his own personal agenda and saying it's Alaska's agenda."
A self-professed Republican, Fabrizio said she voted for Murkowski, "out of fear," and because she believed that Murkowski would do a better job than Miller at providing for Alaskans. "I knew Joe Vogler," she said, "and Joe Miller is no Joe Vogler."
"Joe Vogler, he was principled to his last breath," Fabrizio continued, shaking her head. She recalled Miller using his co-workers' computers to pad a political poll on his personal website while he was a lawyer for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. "If you don't have integrity when it doesn't matter, what about when it does?"
Tom Hewitt is a journalism student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a former editor of the Sun Star, UAF's student newspaper.