An Alaska legislator’s membership in the far-right Oath Keepers is at the center of a trial that began Tuesday.
A lawsuit filed earlier this year challenges Wasilla Rep. David Eastman’s eligibility to hold public office, based on a clause in the Alaska state constitution that forbids someone from holding public office if they aid or belong to a group that advocates the overthrow of the U.S. government. The court case against Eastman, a Republican, will be the first to test the Alaska Constitution clause.
The lawsuit was filed by former Mat-Su Assembly member Randall Kowalke, who is seeking to disqualify Eastman from office. Despite the pending legal challenge, Eastman won reelection in a landslide last month to his Wasilla House seat, garnering over 50% of the vote in a three-way race against two other Republicans.
Eastman, a West Point graduate and Army veteran, has served in the Alaska House since 2017, and has often been at the center of controversy over his outlandish, offensive and divisive statements that have alienated him from some fellow Republicans.
In 2021, Eastman’s name appeared on a leaked list of lifetime members of the Oath Keepers, a group whose leader was recently convicted of committing seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. While members of the Legislature considered taking action against Eastman after the news about his membership in the group broke, they ultimately decided against it.
Eastman was stripped of his minority caucus membership and committee assignments in the final weeks of the 2022 legislative session over what Republican lawmakers called an unproductive demeanor.
The outcome of the trial could impact who controls the Alaska House during the legislative session set to begin in January. Republicans, including Eastman, won 21 of the chamber’s 40 seats. But several Republican members of the Legislature have cited Eastman’s obstructionist tactics as a reason keeping them from joining a Republican-controlled majority. If Eastman is ruled ineligible to hold office, he will be replaced by one of the Republicans who ran against him. That could increase the likelihood of a Republican majority forming.
In the first day of the bench trial held in Palmer — which was delayed by a day due to the snowstorm that blanketed the Anchorage and Mat-Su areas on Monday — Goriune Dudukgian, an attorney for Kowalke, asked Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna to rule that Eastman was ineligible to serve in the state Legislature.
“We’re here for a historic trial,” said Dudukgian in his opening statement. “There are only two elements that we need to prove to win the case. The first element is that Rep. Eastman aids or belongs to the Oath Keepers. The second element is that the Oath Keepers advocate concrete action to overthrow the U.S. government or has actually engaged in such conduct.”
In Eastman’s written response to the allegations in the lawsuit, he admitted that he is a “Life Member” of the Oath Keepers but denied that the organization advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Eastman has said he was in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, but never breached the Capitol.
The majority of the first day of the trial was dedicated to testimony from Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the program on extremism at George Washington University, where he studies domestic violent extremism. Lewis was called by the plaintiff to answer questions about the role of the Oath Keepers in inciting a violent effort to stop the peaceful transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. Lewis also testified about the inclusion of Eastman in communications from leaders of the organization.
Lewis spent hours describing the formation of the Oath Keepers and their involvement in the violent actions that took place in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Joe Miller, the attorney representing Eastman, did not make an opening statement. In his cross-examination of Lewis, Miller said that Stewart Rhodes’ actions are separate from those of the Oath Keepers organization and its other members. Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, was convicted last month of seditious conspiracy. Miller went on to argue that only a small fraction of Oath Keepers members have been charged with breaking the law in relation to the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Lewis had previously given a presentation about the Oath Keepers to a committee of the Alaska Legislature in February of this year, after the revelation that Eastman was on the leaked list of lifetime members of the Oath Keepers.
The trial is expected to resume Wednesday morning and continue through the end of the week.
In an email sent to supporters Tuesday morning, Eastman asked for money to defray his legal fees associated with the trial.
In the email, paid for by a group called “Freedom-Loving Alaskans for David Eastman,” supporters of the lawmaker said the lawsuit is “intended to send a message to every future candidate who files for office that they can be sued personally for hundreds of THOUSANDS of dollars in legal fees if they file for office.”
According to the email, Eastman has already incurred costs of more than $100,000, “and legal fees will almost certainly reach $300,000 before this case is finished.”
The lawsuit also names the Alaska Division of Elections as a defendant, targeting the agency for its alleged failure to vet legislative candidates for their adherence to the state constitution. A state attorney representing the Division, Lael Harrison, was present during the hearing but said she would not participate in the proceedings and that “at this point the division has really no role to play in this trial.”
“The division’s position is that sound public policy argues against the Division of Elections enforcing the disloyalty clause,” said Harrison, suggesting that either the court or the Legislature could enforce it. “It should not be up to the division to be the ones making that determination, conducting some kind of investigation or being the enforcers of the disloyalty clause.”