Politics

Judge says Alaska House can’t take over Medicaid suit from legislative committee

A Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the Alaska House of Representatives can't take over the state Legislature's Medicaid lawsuit, dealing a major blow to lawmakers' attempt to appeal their first-round loss to the state Supreme Court.

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner said in Friday's order that there was no evidence that the case had been transferred from the 14-member Alaska Legislative Council to the House.

"There was no vote on the matter, and the Legislative Council offers no statement from an individual representative," Pfiffner said.

The Alaska Legislative Council was the body that hired outside counsel and voted to sue Gov. Bill Walker last year over his unilateral expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The council argued that Walker didn't have the legal authority to take that step, but lost the case in Superior Court. It had the option to file an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court by May 5.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate make up the Alaska Legislative Council, a permanent interim committee that manages the Legislature's business and can sue in the name of the Legislature.

The council never voted to appeal. The Senate informally decided not to appeal, but Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, a member of the council and the House leadership, initiated an appeal in the state Supreme Court in May.

In Superior Court, attorneys for the Legislative Council asked that the House be substituted as the new plaintiff in the lawsuit, taking over the Alaska Legislative Council's spot. Pfiffner, on Friday, said no. But left unsaid in his decision was whether the appeal itself is valid, an issue that may now have to be decided by the Supreme Court before it can rule on the merits of the case.

ADVERTISEMENT

"The effect of this order on the ability of the Legislative Council or the House to maintain the appeal is beyond the scope of this order and the court makes no ruling on this issue," Pfiffner wrote.

Lawmakers never voted on transferring the interest of the case to the House, Pfiffner said in his order, and although the Senate removed its project director from the lawsuit and turned over case materials to the House, those acts alone do not demonstrate a transfer, Pfiffner said.

"There is also no evidence the House accepted the Legislative Council's interest," Pfiffner said in the order.

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment Friday; neither did Stacey Stone, an attorney with Holmes Weddle & Barcott, one of two law firms representing the Alaska Legislative Council.

Assistant Attorney General Dario Borghesan, an attorney for Walker's administration, said the appeal in the Supreme Court remained live, but the Legislative Council remained the appellant, not the House.

"The real takeaway is that the ball is in their court," he said.

The Legislative Council could choose to keep the appeal going, it could move to dismiss it or it could do nothing in the case and the appeal would just die where it stands, Borghesan said.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said Friday that the Senate had no interest in pursuing an appeal and said that when it comes to the House moving forward, Friday's order "could be a dead-end street for them."

Legislative Council chairman Gary Stevens, a Republican senator from Kodiak, said the council will meet Wednesday morning to vote on whether to continue with the lawsuit.

"If we decide to pull out," he said, "then the House could have its own lawsuit."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.

Sponsored