Alaska Legislature

Judge weighs how to proceed on case against Wasilla lawmaker over Oath Keepers membership

David Eastman, court, courtroom

A state court judge was weighing Thursday whether to allow a case to proceed to trial that alleges that an Alaska lawmaker’s ties to the far-right Oath Keepers group disqualifies him from holding office.

Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna in September ordered that state elections officials delay certifying the Nov. 8 election for Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman’s seat pending further order by the court. Eastman won that election last month.

Eastman has asked that the case against him be dismissed. McKenna heard arguments on that and related matters Thursday. He said he would aim to issue a ruling by Friday. Trial was tentatively set to begin next week.

The case was brought by Randall Kowalke, one of a number of people who filed challenges to Eastman’s candidacy with the Division of Elections earlier this year. Kowalke’s lawsuit points to a provision of the state constitution that states that no one who “advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or organization or association which advocates, the overthrow by force or violence of the government of the United States or of the State shall be qualified to hold” public office.

A founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted last month of seditious conspiracy related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Eastman has said he was in Washington, D.C., that day but did not take part in the riot. Eastman has not been accused of any crimes.

Eastman’s attorney Joe Miller argued in part that Kowalke lacked standing to bring the case. He said Thursday that Kowalke is not in Eastman’s district and has not shown any evidence of harm.

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Miller, in court filings, also said evidence relied on by the plaintiff, including indictments and convictions against Oath Keepers, does “not support the legal conclusions they attempt to draw that Oath Keepers, as an organization, advocates for the overthrow of the government. Neither does any of their other evidence, which largely consists of constitutionally-protected rhetoric, support the legal conclusion of advocacy to overthrow the government.”

The lawsuit also names as a defendant the state Division of Elections and its director, Gail Fenumiai. Attorneys for Kowalke, in court documents, said the division failed to investigate Eastman’s eligibility under the so-called disloyalty clause of the constitution.

The division determined that Eastman was eligible to run for reelection. Fenumiai in June, in response to challenges against his candidacy, said the division was aware that Eastman “reportedly is a member of the Oath Keepers organization and attended” a rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. But she said the division did not have specific information about that in its possession.

“But even assuming these allegations are true, DOE has determined that they do not — without more — provide a basis to prevent Representative Eastman from running for state office,” she wrote. Fenumiai in June said the division had received 24 timely filed challenges to Eastman’s candidacy.

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Attorneys for the division, in court records, said the division “did everything the law requires it to do.”

Lael Harrison, an attorney with the state Department of Law representing the division, said qualifications that elections officials typically look at revolve around such things as age and residency. She said the division has no authority to subpoena evidence.

Goriune Dudukgian, an attorney for Kowalke, said the division didn’t need subpoena power. “All the division had to do was a Google search or search publicly available data” to find statements on the Oath Keepers’ website and cases against people with ties to Oath Keepers that were known at the time Kowalke lodged his complaint, he said.

The Alaska House, controlled by a bipartisan majority, earlier this year backed off a proposal to strip committee assignments from Eastman over his ties to the Oath Keepers but held informational hearings on the group.

Eastman has at times been a polarizing figure and at odds with members of his own party. He was booted from the Republican caucus near the end of the legislative session earlier this year. The House Republican leader at the time, Rep. Cathy Tilton, cited tensions with Eastman that had built over time. Eastman also was removed from two committees.

Becky Bohrer, Associated Press

Becky Bohrer is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Juneau.

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