[Above: Watch Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth deliver his ruling Friday morning. ADN app users, you can watch the video here.]
An Anchorage Superior Court judge ruled Friday in favor of the recall campaign against Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, saying the Division of Elections incorrectly rejected the effort.
“This is a question for the voters, and the constitution makes that very clear,” said Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth.
The judge’s decision will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, but in the meantime, recall supporters may begin another round of signature-gathering necessary to force a special election. Aarseth ordered the Division of Elections to distribute petition books no later than Feb. 10.
Supporters need to obtain the signatures of 71,252 registered voters, or 25% of the number of voters in the last general election, to force a special election. A first round of petitioning, required for the Division of Elections to consider the recall application, netted 49,000 signatures in five weeks.
If Dunleavy is removed from office in that special election, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer would become governor.
Brewster Jamieson, attorney for Stand Tall With Mike, the group opposing the recall, said he intends to request signature-gathering be put on hold while the appeal proceeds. Aarseth said he will not grant that hold, but the Supreme Court might.
Claire Pywell, campaign manager for Recall Dunleavy, said the group plans a three-day kickoff event in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage when it officially receives the petition booklets, and on its website will provide a listing of places to sign the petition.
Aarseth said his ruling is limited to the legal framework of the recall, and the court isn’t advising anyone how to vote.
“I’m not weighing whether any of the allegations made by the plaintiff are true or false. I’m not making any judgments on whether the elected official is doing a good job or not,” he said.
Under Alaska law, a public official can be recalled for lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties, or corruption. In its statement, Recall Dunleavy offered four examples that it said met that standard:
• The governor failed to appoint a judge within 45 days as required by law and the state constitution, Recall Dunleavy said.
• Dunleavy violated state law and the constitution by using state resources for partisan political mailers, Recall Dunleavy said.
• The governor improperly vetoed money from the court system and health budgets, violating the separation of powers required by the state constitution, Recall Dunleavy said.
• Dunleavy acted incompetently when he vetoed more health funding than he told the Legislature he intended to do, Recall Dunleavy said.
Aarseth said all but one of those grounds was valid. He said the veto of health funding could have been overridden by the Alaska Legislature and did not violate the state constitution’s separation-of-powers guidelines.
To recall an Alaska politician from office, state law requires a 200-word statement that lists “the grounds for recall described in particular.” On Friday, most of the debates about the legality of the recall revolved around whether the listed reasons for recall were described “in particular.”
Recall backers incorporated footnotes with supplementary material in their 200-word statement, and Aarseth gave recall opponents a small victory Thursday when he said he would not consider the documents listed in the footnotes.
Former state attorney general Jahna Lindemuth, representing Recall Dunleavy, spent 30 minutes explaining how the reasons for recall do meet that standard even without the footnotes.
Chief assistant attorney general Margaret Paton-Walsh argued the state’s position and was given 30 minutes to respond to Lindemuth.
Jamieson, representing Stand Tall With Mike, said Recall Dunleavy’s grounds for removal were not particular, the equivalent of a “sudoku puzzle” that requires voters to bring extra information into the voting booth to understand.
Lindemuth was allowed time to close out, and Aarseth, appointed to the court by former Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2005, ruled from the bench around 11:30 a.m. Friday.
Dunleavy, speaking to reporters Friday evening, said he has faith he will on appeal. But he said he’s prepared for the possibility of a special election, and he’ll do everything he can to win to win it.
He said Aarseth’s decision sets up a situation where anyone can be recalled for any reason. He said he’s facing a recall for his policy decisions, and that none of the allegations against him involved corruption or scandal.
“If this is the stand, what happens now is there is really no standard, no hurdle to be recalled,” Dunleavy said, speaking at Davis Constructors and Engineers in Anchorage, where he was to appear at a fundraiser organized by the group Stand Tall With Mike, the group opposing the recall. “It becomes a political recall. You can be recalled for any reason at all. And that in my opinion doesn’t bode well for the process going forward. It becomes easy to nullify an election.”
The governor’s attorneys said they share his concern, and Senior Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said in a written statement that the state shares Stand Tall With Mike’s concerns.
“We look forward to arguing these issues on appeal and receiving the court’s direction,” she wrote.
Speaking from the bench, Aarseth said any recall is political, and voters are the ultimate arbiters.
“The recall process is fundamentally a political process. This is not an issue for the judicial branch to decide,” he said.