A Juneau Superior Court judge's ruling Tuesday could pave the way for Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, to run in the state Democratic Party's primary and get the party's support for his re-election campaign next year.
Judge Philip Pallenberg, in a 33-page decision published Tuesday morning, invalidated a state law barring independent candidates from contesting partisan primaries.
The Alaska Democratic Party had sued to overturn the law, arguing that it unconstitutionally restricted the party's freedom to associate with its favored candidates.
Pallenberg agreed, writing that political parties' ability to run their chosen nominees, regardless of party affiliation, is an "essential associational right" established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pallenberg dismissed the state's three arguments for restricting that right — avoiding voter confusion, ensuring that groups that get recognized party status have a baseline level of support and preserving the political system's stability — as "vague and abstract," "simply irrelevant" and an unsupported "doomsday vision."
The decision could allow Walker to keep his unaffiliated status and run in the Democratic primary, if he chooses to do so. A victory in the primary would give Walker access to party infrastructure such as staff, voter data and volunteers that could be critical to defeating a Republican challenger.
Walker, whose lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott, is a Democrat, has not said whether he would seek the Democratic nomination if the law allowed him to. A spokeswoman for Walker's campaign, Lindsay Hobson, declined to comment Tuesday, pointing to the possibility that the state could appeal the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, who will make the appeal decision, works for Walker. But Lindemuth will break from routine by deciding on the appeal unilaterally, without input from other members of the Walker administration or Walker himself, "because this has political implications," said Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for Lindemuth.
That decision will come after a standard legal analysis and could take "several weeks," Mills said.
The Democrats' lawsuit originally stems not from Walker's re-election campaign but from the 2016 election, when independent Margaret Stock wanted to compete for the party's support in her campaign for U.S. Senate.
Stock had backing from many Democratic leaders. But an initial lawsuit filed by the party to allow her to participate in its primary was rejected by a different judge, who said the case was premature because Democrats hadn't adopted their own internal rule to open their primary to non-members.
The party subsequently made that change at its 2016 state convention and filed its second lawsuit in February.
Tuesday's ruling will allow independent candidates with "shared values" with the Democrats to compete for the party's support and "continue to be genuine," said Executive Director Jay Parmley.
"This was never about the governor," Parmley said in a phone interview from the Seattle airport, where he was on his way to Las Vegas for national party meetings. "We're just giving people an option — if you wish to have the Democratic Party's support and you're not a Democrat, you can run in our primary, win our nomination and have the support."
Parmley said he expected that party officials would ultimately recruit independent candidates to participate in the Democratic primary, though he added: "It's not like I've got a list of them on my wall."
Two independents in the Alaska House caucus with the mostly Democratic majority there: Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan and Jason Grenn of Anchorage.
Grenn said in a brief phone interview Tuesday that he'd just learned of the decision and hadn't given much thought to running in the Democratic primary — though he also didn't rule out the idea.
"I'll look at it and see how it affects me, but I don't see it changing my strategy or my path right now," he said. "I was not following the case with bated breath."
Pallenberg's decision, if it stands, could allow Democrats to nominate candidates who are more competitive in the general election, said Forrest Nabors, associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Parties always have to balance appeals to their die-hard supporters and to the "broader Alaska citizenry," Nabors said — and hardcore Democrats may not be excited about the party's move to open its primaries to independent candidates.
But in Alaska — where 53 percent of voters are independent and 15 percent are Democrats — both parties have to appeal to unaffiliated voters, and Democrats even more so, Nabors added.
Walker received the Democratic Party's endorsement and political support when he was first elected, in 2014.
But that came only after Mallott, the winner of the party's primary, agreed to cede his spot on the ballot to Walker and seek the lieutenant governor position as part of a "unity ticket." Democratic Party officials subsequently voted to give Walker their support.
That path may not be available to Walker in next year's election if he skips the party's primary and another Democrat wins the nomination. No Democrats have registered to run for governor, but the filing deadline is still more than six months away and Mark Begich, the Democratic former U.S. senator, has told supporters that he's considering a bid.
Begich didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
One question left unresolved by Tuesday's ruling is how independent candidates nominated in a partisan primary would appear on the general election ballot.
At a court hearing last month, the Democrats' attorney suggested that candidates would be listed by their own party affiliation, with nothing to signify if a candidate had won a partisan primary, Pallenberg wrote in his decision.
In that case, if an independent candidate won the Democratic primary, Pallenberg added, "a general election voter would not be able to tell from the ballot whether that candidate was the candidate of the Democratic Party, or some other party with a similar rule, or alternatively whether that candidate had qualified for the ballot by petition."
Pallenberg rejected the Democrats' idea, which he dubbed a "bait and switch." He suggested instead that the ballot design should be left to the state elections director, who's required by law to prepare them to "facilitate fairness, simplicity, and clarity in the voting procedure."
"Sufficient care on the director's behalf will ensure that voters in both the primary and general elections are fully informed about exactly who it is they are voting for," Pallenberg wrote.