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Independents can run in party primaries, Alaska Supreme Court says, opening door for Gov. Walker

JUNEAU — The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that independent candidates can compete in partisan primary elections, opening a door for Gov. Bill Walker to seek Democratic support in his re-election campaign — if he wants it.

In a three-sentence order issued around noon, the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision issued in October.

That decision, by Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg, struck down a state elections law as unconstitutional. The law required primary election candidates to belong to the party whose nomination they're seeking, but Pallenberg said the rule violated freedom of association rights under the First Amendment.

The Alaska Democratic Party sued to overturn the law last year, and the state subsequently appealed Pallenberg's decision. The Democrats want independent candidates to be able to seek the party's support in the primary.

"It's really about self-determination," said Jay Parmley, the party's executive director. "It's about the people that vote in the Democratic primary having the best choices possible of who should be the standard-bearer for the party, regardless of whether they're registered with the party."

Wednesday's decision came less than a week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in Kenai. The order cited the need for "early notice" of the decision given the August primary and the June 1 deadline for candidates to file.

"Accordingly, having considered the parties' briefing and the oral arguments, the Superior Court's judgment is AFFIRMED," the order said. "An opinion explaining our decision will be issued at a later date."

The Supreme Court's order did not appear to stem from unanimous agreement among its five justices.

The order was accompanied by a four-page memo from Chief Justice Craig Stowers labeled "dubitante" — a judge's way of expressing doubt that doesn't rise to the level of a formal dissent.

Stowers, in his memo, said he's not convinced the order is correct. But he added that it's "premature" to dissent before the court's other justices write their full majority opinion.

"Suffice it to say that I am presently unconvinced with the court's conclusion that the party affiliation statute is unconstitutional," he wrote. "Thus, for now, I doubt."

Wednesday's ruling would allow Walker, an independent, to appear on the ballot in this year's Democratic primary and to benefit from the party's support if he wins.

Walker won election to his first term in 2014 with Democrats' support after the party's gubernatorial nominee, Byron Mallott, agreed to run for lieutenant governor and join his campaign with Walker's.

That decision came after the primary election. Walker — a lifelong Republican until dropping his registration in 2014 — has not said if he will seek the Democratic nomination this year.

A spokeswoman for Walker's re-election campaign, Lindsay Hobson, said Wednesday that the campaign is still evaluating the Supreme Court's decision.

Another independent candidate, Alyse Galvin, is expected to run in Alaska's Democratic primary this year, said Parmley, the party's executive director. Galvin is running for the U.S. House seat held by Republican Don Young.

Candidates in state legislative races — like incumbent independent Reps. Jason Grenn of Anchorage and Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan — could also participate in the Democratic primary.

Parmley said he has not spoken to Walker about the potential for the governor to participate in the Democratic primary.

No other Democrats have filed to run for governor.

But Mark Begich, the former U.S. senator, has said he's considering a bid, and Parmley said Wednesday's ruling should help shape the field of candidates.

"It's going to be time for some folks to make a decision. But that time has not been before now," Parmley said.

The Supreme Court's order did not contain any instructions to state elections officials about how they should present candidates' party affiliations on the ballot — a subject of debate during the court case, and one that could influence how voters ultimately make up their minds. In a prepared statement Wednesday, the Alaska Department of Law said the state Division of Elections "will be tasked with designing ballots that clearly and accurately reflect the registration status and nominee status of candidates on both the primary and general election ballots."

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