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Dunleavy vetoes $335,000 from Alaska judiciary budget over court’s abortion decisions

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters about his budget vetoes at the state Capitol in Juneau, Alaska Friday, June 28, 2019. The university system, health and social service programs and public broadcasting were among the areas affected by vetoes. The budget agreed to by the House and Senate cut state support for the university system by a fraction of what Dunleavy proposed. Lawmakers have the ability to override budget vetoes if they can muster sufficient support. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

After years of unsuccessful attempts by Alaska legislators to defund “elective" abortions, the governor on Friday vetoed nearly $335,000 from the judiciary’s budget over its rulings on the issue.

Alaska conservatives have tried repeatedly to bar the state’s Medicaid program from paying for abortions outside of cases of rape, incest and instances where the mother’s life is in danger.

Each time, they’ve been blocked by the Alaska Supreme Court, which most recently declared two such laws unconstitutional in February.

On Friday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy used the veto pen to symbolically pay for those decisions out of the court’s own budget. The $334,700 he struck from the court system’s budget is equal, he said, to the amount the state spent on elective abortions last year.

“The Legislative and Executive Branch are opposed to State funded elective abortions; the only branch of government that insists on State funded elected abortions is the Supreme Court," a budget document released Friday reads. "The annual cost of elective abortions is reflected by this reduction.”

For abortion opponents such as Alaska Family Council director Jim Minnery, the veto was one step toward quelling “activist” attempts to legislate from the bench.

“They usurped their authority in a manner that took away the rights of citizens,” Minnery said.

In 1998, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services restricted state Medicaid coverage for abortion only to extreme cases.

The Alaska Supreme Court in 2001 rejected that regulation, arguing it violated women’s constitutional right to equal protection by discriminating between women who chose to have abortions and those who chose to carry their pregnancies to term.

Two laws passed in 2013 and 2014 tried restrict Medicaid-funded abortions to “medically necessary" cases, but those, too, were rejected.

Jessica Cler, Alaska state director for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Dunleavy’s budget cut spiteful, according to The Associated Press.

John Coghill, R-North Pole, who sponsored the 2013 law, argued the veto isn’t a vindictive one.

“I don’t know that it’s punitive as much as he’s not willing to pay for it, just as the Legislature isn’t willing to pay for it," Coghill said.

Dunleavy himself is no stranger to abortion legislation. In 2016, he sponsored two separate bills related to sex education in public schools, one that would prohibit abortion providers from being able to present in schools on topics related to sexual education, and another that would ban them from classroom presentations all together. Neither bill passed.

His veto, though, has questionable implications for the judiciary’s independence and impartiality, according to some of those who have sat on the bench.

“This imperils the notion of fair, it imperils the notion of impartial, and it certainly imperils the notion of independent," said Elaine Andrews, a former judge who served on both the Alaska District and Superior Courts.

Sen Tan, a retired Anchorage Superior Court judge, argued that while governors have the constitutional power to veto budgets passed by the Legislature, wielding that power against the co-equal judicial branch represents a start down a “dangerous path.”

A Supreme Court that has to rule with its financial well-being in mind is not one that can rule fairly, he said.

“This whole idea that judges should rule in a certain political way would erode public confidence that we are a neutral body that would apply the constitution equally for everyone," Tan said.

For Tan, the branches of government, as well as the government and the people, are in a constant state of tug-of-war.

“We need a referee, and the referee is the court system," he said. "And for it to work properly, I think everyone has to respect the role of the referee in making hard decisions.”

It’s unclear how the cut, which represents less than 1% of the Alaska Court System’s budget, will affect the courts. A spokeswoman for the Alaska Court System did not respond to an emailed request for comment Saturday.

The veto seems unlikely, though, to affect the justices’ decision-making on the issue.

“I can say with confidence that there is no possibility that any judge on any court in Alaska would place financial or political favor over their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Alaska," Andrews said.

Reporter James Brooks contributed to this report.

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