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Dunleavy accelerates state public defender’s departure, but the official doesn’t believe the move is legal

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: April 13, 2019
  • Published April 12, 2019

Alaska's top public defender, Quinlan Steiner, poses for a photo outside the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau on Thursday, March 1, 2018. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy has accelerated the departure of state Public Defender Quinlan Steiner, relieving him of duties, effective immediately.

On April 2, Steiner announced his resignation “effective on appointment of a new public defender appointed by the Alaska Judicial Council,” but the governor accelerated that timeline Friday, saying by press release that he accepted Steiner’s resignation, “effective immediately.”

The move allows the governor to appoint an interim replacement, and the governor’s statement says Beth Goldstein, an attorney with extensive experience in the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy and the Office of the Federal Public Defender (in Ohio) will serve as interim public defender.

Matt Shuckerow, the governor’s press secretary, said by phone that because the Judicial Council has begun the process of replacing Steiner, there is an acknowledgement that the position is effectively vacant. The Judicial Council published a notice April 10 indicating it is soliciting applications for the vacancy.

Shuckerow referred to a state statute saying that the “judicial council shall act ... as soon as possible after the vacancy occurs.” Because that act counts as acknowledgement of a vacancy, Shuckerow explained, the governor has the right to name an interim figure.

Steiner disagrees with that interpretation.

“I don’t think the governor has the authority to accept my resignation prematurely,” he said by phone late Friday.

Steiner declined to say whether he would legally challenge the governor’s decision and doesn’t know whether he’ll show to work on Monday.

“I don’t know what the next step is,” he said.

The public defender manages the Public Defender Agency, the organization in charge of defending Alaskans in court if they cannot afford to hire an attorney themselves. It’s a constitutionally required responsibility of the state, and Steiner warned last year that state budget cuts were endangering the agency’s ability to fulfill that constitutional obligation.

Because the governor is in charge of the Department of Law, which handles criminal prosecution, the role of public defender is intended to be insulated from political matters, Steiner said.

Susanne DiPietro, head of the Alaska Judicial Council, said she’s unfamiliar with any precedent for the current circumstances. While interim public defenders have been named before, she doesn’t believe a governor has ever removed a public defender from office.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said late Friday that he is “skeptical” about the governor’s decision.

According to the replacement procedure under state law, the council will select at least two nominees from a pool of interested applicants, then forward their names to the governor, who will pick his choice. That choice is subject to approval by the Alaska Legislature.

The public defender serves a term of four years, and then the governor can decide whether to reappoint that person or seek a new series of nominees from the judicial council. If the governor reappoints the public defender, she or he must be approved by the Legislature again.

Steiner, who has defended Alaskans in court as a public defender for more than two decades, was appointed to head the Public Defender Agency by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2005 and was reconfirmed by governors Palin, Parnell and Walker and several sessions of the state Legislature.