Arguments in a trial over Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman’s eligibility to hold office concluded Wednesday, leaving it up to Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna to determine whether Eastman’s membership in the Oath Keepers precludes him from serving in the Alaska state House.
Mat-Su resident Randall Kowalke filed the lawsuit against Eastman earlier this year, arguing that Eastman’s Oath Keepers membership violates the disloyalty clause in the Alaska Constitution, which states that a person can’t hold public office if they are a member of a group that advocates the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
This is the first lawsuit centered on the Alaska disloyalty clause. In a week’s worth of testimony and arguments from Kowalke and Eastman’s attorneys, the sides sparred over whether the Oath Keepers, a far-right organization, sought to overthrow the U.S. government in the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob — including several members of the group — entered the U.S. Capitol by force and attempted to stop the certification of the electoral votes after President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
The trial was held in a Palmer courtroom but included hours of remote testimony via livestream. It featured several names that have garnered national attention in connection with the events of Jan. 6. Among those testifying on Eastman’s behalf was Stewart Rhodes, the jailed founder and leader of the Oath Keepers who was convicted last month of seditious conspiracy in connection with the attempt to subvert the result of the 2020 presidential election.
Also on the list of witnesses was Trump attorney John Eastman, a key figure behind Trump’s plot to remain in office despite losing the election. John Eastman’s testimony came a day after the U.S. House Jan. 6 committee referred him for possible charges of obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the U.S.
John Eastman not only provided expert testimony arguing that David Eastman’s membership in the Oath Keepers is protected under the First Amendment, but also worked on David Eastman’s legal team, preparing legal briefings on his behalf. There is no family connection between David Eastman and John Eastman.
In the course of the trial, Rep. Eastman refused to disavow his membership in the Oath Keepers despite the fact that so far five of its members — including Rhodes — have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.
Goriune Dudukgian, an attorney for Kowalke, argued that the actions and words of Oath Keeper leaders “clearly show a conspiracy by the Oath Keepers to overthrow the U.S. government by force,” relying on statements made by Rhodes and other members of the organization in the days leading up to Jan. 6.
“It was not a surprise to anybody what happened on Jan. 6 if they’d been following the statements of Rhodes and the Oath Keepers in the two months that preceded the events of that day,” Dudukgian said in his closing argument Wednesday.
Dudukgian contended that the Oath Keepers’ participation in a plot to oppose by force the transfer of presidential power constituted a violent attempt to overthrow the government, and that Eastman should be held accountable for the group’s apparent intent to stop the certification of election results by force even if he himself did not commit any violent acts.
“There’s really no functional difference between stopping the transfer of presidential power and overthrowing the government,” Dudukgian said.
Joe Miller, the attorney representing Eastman, argued that even though several Oath Keepers were involved in the attack on the Capitol, that does not mean all members of the broader organization — Eastman among them — should be implicated.
Miller also argued that the Oath Keepers’ messages did not constitute an imminent call for violence. But even if it did, he said that would be protected under First Amendment freedom of association rights.
“This is not a case as to whether or not somebody committed a crime or whether or not somebody committed obstruction against the government. This is a case involving whether or not Rep. Eastman’s membership in an organization can disqualify him from public office,” Miller said in his closing argument Wednesday. “And there are significant First Amendment concerns surrounding this decision and significant implications not just for Rep. Eastman, but many, many individuals who are public servants today and who wish to be public servants in the future.”
Miller and the witnesses he called attempted to present the Oath Keepers as an organization primarily engaged in humanitarian efforts, portraying the violence perpetrated on Jan. 6 as an aberration.
“What they’re doing, judge, is they’re focusing on one event, and they’re focusing on a small group of people, and then they’re trying to paint this broad blanket brush of blame over anyone that has any association with them,” Miller said.
Eastman was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to attend the rally of Trump supporters, but testified that he did not enter or approach the Capitol. Dudukgian argued that based on Eastman’s actions, “there was a specific intent to be part of the insurrection on Jan. 6,″ despite Eastman’s testimony that he did not intend to participate in the violence.
The Alaska Division of Elections is also named as a defendant in the trial for its decision not to disqualify Eastman from the 2022 ballot, instead leaving the decision on whether Eastman violated the disloyalty clause to the court. An attorney for the state argued the decision relates to “some of the most divisive political issues facing our nation” and should not be left to a nonpartisan state agency responsible for overseeing elections.
“This is very politically charged material and the Legislature has designated the Division of Elections as an impartial, politically neutral entity,” said state attorney Lael Harrison. “The division has to remain neutral in order to fulfill its statutory duties and also in order to maintain that credibility with the public of its neutral, impartial role.”
McKenna, the judge presiding over the trial, is expected to issue a ruling on an expedited basis ahead of the Legislature’s convening in mid-January. If Eastman is ruled ineligible to hold office, the judge has indicated that the candidate who came in second to Eastman in the November election could get the seat. That would be Republican Stuart Graham, who got 27% of the vote in the three-way race between three Republicans. Eastman had won with over 51% of the vote.
But attorneys on both sides have indicated that regardless of McKenna’s verdict, an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court is likely.
That could mean continued uncertainty for the state House, which has yet to announce its leadership ahead of the start of the session in January. Eastman — long derided by some of his colleagues for his far-right and uncompromising policy positions — has been cited as one reason the 21 elected Republicans in the 40-seat chamber have not been able to coalesce a majority.