Opinions

Legislators are flouting the law on session location

This past winter, when I sat through legislative hearings regarding my confirmation as Alaska’s 26th Attorney General, I was asked repeatedly by legislators in both the Senate and the House whether I would respect the rule of law. They wanted to know whether I would advise the governor and the various executive branch departments on what the law in Alaska is, as opposed to what the governor or any other executive branch officer might want. I assured them that I would respect the rule of law. I have kept that promise and I intend to continue to do so. Respect for the rule of law is crucial for a free society.

Bewilderingly, however, some of the very legislators who posed these questions to me are now throwing the rule of law to the four winds. Members of legislative leadership have announced that they will ignore the governor’s legally valid proclamation calling a special session of the Legislature in Wasilla, and they will instead convene in Juneau and Anchorage. By doing this, legislative leadership is ignoring Alaska statutes and thumbing their noses at the rule of law. Alaska law is clear on this issue — when the governor calls a special session of the Legislature, it is the governor who selects the location and he may select any location in the state.

Let’s start with the Alaska Constitution. The constitution empowers the governor to issue a proclamation calling a special session of the Legislature. The constitution does not state that a special session — or, for that matter, any session of the Legislature — may only be held in Juneau. The constitution does not state that the Legislature, and only the Legislature, may decide where a special session will be held. And, although our constitution says that the capital of the state is Juneau, the Alaskans who wrote our constitution did not expressly attach any significance to that fact when it comes to where the Legislature shall convene.

This latter fact makes our constitution different than the constitutions of other states. In other states, their constitutions contain provisions with express language establishing the significance of the designation of a particular city as the capital or “seat of government.” For example, the Alabama Constitution expressly states that the Legislature can meet outside the “seat of government” (the capital) only under exceptional circumstances — in other words, when it is impossible for the Legislature to meet in the capital due to natural catastrophe or state of war. Our constitution contains no such provision and instead is silent about where the Legislature shall convene in either regular or special session.

The Alaskans who wrote our constitution were intelligent folks. If they had wanted to limit the location at which the Legislature could convene for special session, they could have followed the lead of many of the state constitutions that came before ours and easily said precisely that in a few short words. The fact that they wrote an entire section of our constitution to give the governor the power to call the Legislature into special session to address issues that the governor specifies — and did not therein limit where the governor could call the Legislature to convene — is very significant.

And Alaska’s statutory law is crystal clear. In 1982, the Alaska Legislature enacted a statute that expressly provides the governor can select the location for a special session he calls be held. This same statute provides that a special session of the Legislature can be held at any location within the state. The Legislature obviously thought this statute was constitutional when it was enacted. By this statute, the governor could pick Kotzebue, Bethel, Huslia or Ninilchik for a special session.

The only way that the Legislature can change the location of a special session called by the governor is for the Legislature to call its own special session—but by our Constitution, and by that same statute enacted by the Legislature, it must have a two-thirds vote of its members (40 members of the total 60) to do so. They have failed to do so.

Our legislative leaders need to respect the rule of law and follow the very statutes that they have enacted. You can bet your bottom dollar that those same legislative leaders expect the governor, not to mention you and I, to follow the statutes they enact. As one of our greatest U.S. Supreme Court justices, Louis D. Brandeis, put it: “If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”

Kevin Clarkson is the Attorney General of the state of Alaska.

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