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Politics

Anchorage judge unexpectedly orders temporary halt to recall campaign against Dunleavy

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: January 21
  • Published January 21

Boxes of signatures collected to recall Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy are shown in the Alaska Division of Elections office Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Recall organizers say they submitted 49,006 signatures, a first step in an attempt to force the recall election of the first-term governor. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth on Tuesday morning ordered a halt to the recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy until an appeal is heard by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Aarseth’s order was unexpected by both sides in the campaign seeking to remove Dunleavy from office. Aarseth had ruled Jan. 10 that a decision by the Alaska Division of Elections to reject the recall was incorrect and that recall proponents should be permitted to gather signatures needed to force a statewide vote.

That vote would be a straight up-or-down decision on whether the governor should stay in office. If not, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer would become governor.

Aarseth said Jan. 10 that “this court does not intend on granting a stay of that process,” but Stand Tall With Mike — the group defending the governor — said in a Jan. 15 court filing that its cause would be irreparably harmed without a pause.

Recall Dunleavy — the group seeking the governor’s removal — agreed to speedy consideration requested by Stand Tall With Mike, and Aarseth approved the pause until the Supreme Court can consider the case.

“This matter is stayed pending resolution of this case in the Alaska Supreme Court,” the order reads.

Hours later, Recall Dunleavy filed a petition asking Aarseth to reconsider his decision.

Claire Pywell, Recall Dunleavy’s campaign manager, was performing jury duty Tuesday and unable to comment by phone. In a written statement, she said, “It is very important to note that this latest order does not impact the merits of his primary ruling — the recall application that over 46,000 Alaskans signed is still valid. Recall Dunleavy intends to pursue all necessary procedures at every level to guarantee that Alaskans will have the opportunity to sign the recall petition as soon as possible.”

Craig Richards, a former Alaska attorney general now representing Stand Tall With Mike, said Tuesday morning that “a stay makes sense. It allows the Supreme Court to weigh in and decide what will be on the ballot before we go through the process of collecting signatures.”

When asked whether the governor had time to answer questions on Tuesday, the governor’s deputy communications director said he was booked for the day.

Recall Dunleavy has offered four reasons for the governor’s recall:

• He failed to appoint a judge on time, as required by law and the constitution, Recall Dunleavy says.

• He illegally used state funds for partisan political mailers, Recall Dunleavy says.

• He violated the separation-of-powers clause of the state constitution with some of his budget vetoes last year, Recall Dunleavy says.

• He acted incompetently because of a mistake in one of his budget vetoes dealing with health care, Recall Dunleavy says.

Stand Tall With Mike has offered a variety of defenses against those point, but its principal argument is that none of the points meet the requirements under state law and that the recall is being pursued to overturn the results of the 2018 election.

Aarseth threw out part of the recall involving the governor’s budget vetoes, and the Supreme Court could rule out other sections. If signature-gathering were allowed now, voters might be asked to sign recall petitions that include items not on the final ballot.

“I’m not that surprised because I think it makes the most sense,” Richards said of Aarseth’s decision to delay.

Aarseth had previously ordered the Division of Elections to provide petition booklets to Recall Dunleavy no later than Feb. 10, but with the pause, that deadline is no longer in effect. Instead, petition booklets will be distributed only if the Alaska Supreme Court rules in Recall Dunleavy’s favor.

The state of Alaska is also defending the decision of the Division of Elections to reject the recall petition but was not involved in the request for a delay.

“We appreciate the court’s quick decision on the stay, which gives the Division of Elections firm direction," attorney general Kevin Clarkson said in a prepared statement. "The Division of Elections was already holding off on printing pending the outcome of the stay, and in light of the stay, will not be printing booklets. We look forward to filing our notice of appeal and presenting our arguments to the Alaska Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court has not set a timeline to consider any appeal. Aarseth has not yet issued a final judgment, and Richards said that is expected before the Supreme Court takes up the matter.

If the Supreme Court approves the recall, backers need 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, collected 49,000 signatures in five weeks.

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