Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman, a member of a far-right militia group whose leaders have been accused of plotting to storm the U.S. Capitol to overturn the 2020 election, made his first in-person courtroom appearance Friday in a case challenging his eligibility to hold office and appear on the general election ballot.
The hearing in Anchorage’s Nesbett Courthouse was focused on the Alaska Division of Elections’ role in determining that Eastman was qualified to appear on the ballot back in June, despite claims that his lifetime membership in the Oath Keepers violated the state constitution’s disloyalty clause, which has never been tested in court.
Savannah Fletcher, attorney for former Mat-Su Assembly member Randall Kowalke, who filed the suit last month, said her client’s goal is to resolve the question of Eastman’s eligibility to hold office before he has the chance to be reelected. An appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court on that question is expected, however Anchorage Judge Jack McKenna rules.
But Eastman’s attorney Joe Miller, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, said he was too busy with other cases to be ready for trial in October, and McKenna set the trial date for the week of Dec. 12. Outside court, Miller denied he had sought a December trial because it is after November’s election.
”The primary reason was because we need to be adequately prepared,” he said. “The plaintiff has had lots of opportunities.”
There is a separate preliminary injunction set to be considered by the same judge later in September on the question of whether Eastman should remain on November’s ballot.
Miller used his time to speak to make broader arguments ahead of filing a motion to dismiss the case outright. He said that Eastman’s constituents have known about these allegations against him and a majority of voters supported him in the primary election. He also raised concerns about the precedent that would be set if a “bureaucratic agency” could unilaterally remove a candidate from a general election ballot for their affiliations with certain groups.
“Next time, it may be somebody that’s affiliated with the NRA, or somebody affiliated with Black Lives Matter, antifa, one of these other organizations out there that somebody disagrees with,” he said.
Miller then argued that no evidence had been presented to the Division of Elections that Eastman belonged to an insurrectionist organization. Some Oath Keepers have been charged for their alleged conduct during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but Miller said that doesn’t necessarily implicate the broader militia group, he said.
Earlier in the year, the Alaska House of Representatives lacked the votes to remove Eastman from legislative committees or expel him from the Legislature entirely for his Oath Keepers membership, but there were several hearings held looking into the far-right group. Eastman was eventually removed from his committee assignments and his Republican minority caucus, but that was because he was said to be too “disruptive.”
The Wasilla Republican attended the Jan. 6 protests in Washington, D.C., but there is no evidence he engaged in the ensuing riots or entered the Capitol. Speaking to reporters after Friday’s hearing, he echoed his attorney, asserting it’s “unbelievable” that all people associated with the Oath Keepers are committed to overthrowing the government.
Back inside the courtroom, state of Alaska attorney Lael Harrison argued that the Division of Elections’ role in the case should be dismissed. She stressed that she wasn’t arguing about the merits of Eastman’s eligibility to hold public office, but said that the division simply does not have the administrative capabilities to conduct a “free-ranging investigation” into candidate qualifications.
Instead, it is focused on simple eligibility questions like looking into a candidate’s age and residency. Harrison said those thornier questions being asked of Eastman’s eligibility should be answered by the Alaska Legislature.
Fletcher, Kowalke’s attorney, said the Alaska Constitution’s disloyalty clause, which prohibits members of groups that seek to overthrow the U.S. and state government from holding public office, should be considered by state regulators. She asked: “Why do we have a process to challenge eligibility through the Division of Elections at all?”
McKenna said he would endeavor to make a decision on the state’s motion to be removed from the case by Monday. Oral arguments on the ballot eligibility question have been scheduled for Sept. 20.