The plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the eligibility of state Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, to hold office said Tuesday that he will not appeal a judge’s decision allowing Eastman to retain his seat in the Alaska House.
Without an appeal, Eastman — a conservative lawmaker known for controversial views and unwillingness to compromise — is guaranteed to keep his seat in the Alaska Legislature despite his lifetime membership in the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group linked with the violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol that took place Jan. 6, 2021.
Randall Kowalke, a former constituent of Eastman’s, filed a lawsuit last year challenging Eastman’s eligibility to serve in the state Legislature based on a clause in the Alaska Constitution that bars people from holding public office if they belong to a group that seeks to overthrow the U.S. government by violence. A trial in December focused on Eastman’s membership in the Oath Keepers and included testimony from several individuals linked with the attack on the U.S. Capitol, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 attack.
After the weeklong trial, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jack McKenna ruled that Eastman is eligible for office. McKenna found that Eastman is a member of the Oath Keepers, and the Oath Keepers “have advocated imminent, concrete action to violently overthrow the United States government and have engaged in conduct to that end.” However, McKenna found that Eastman “did not have a specific intent to further the Oath Keepers’ unprotected speech or conduct.”
Kowalke and his attorney said Tuesday that they decided not to appeal McKenna’s ruling because they did not believe they could win an appeal, given that Eastman could plausibly argue that while he was in Washington, D.C., on the day when members of the Oath Keepers forced their way into the U.S. Capitol, Eastman himself did not enter the Capitol or intend to aid an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
“Although we think (the judge) made a mistake on whether or not Eastman had the specific intent to subvert our democracy, we also know that our chances of getting this factual finding reversed on appeal are slim,” said Goriune Dudukgian, Kowalke’s attorney and a member of the Northern Justice Project, a firm that represented Kowalke pro bono.
Kowalke added in a phone interview Tuesday that part of the decision not to appeal the case to the Alaska Supreme Court was a concern over creating precedent that would allow members of the Oath Keepers and similar organizations to hold public office in the future.
“If we had gone to the state Supreme Court and failed on the same issue, then it becomes precedent,” Kowalke said. “The attorneys and I were concerned about that because we felt that David Eastman was exactly what we thought he was — an Oath Keeper who was committed to a group we believe was seditious. In the end of the day, we proved all of that, but we weren’t able to prove that his intention was to aid in that.”
Still, Kowalke said the judge’s ruling should serve as a warning for other members of the Oath Keepers and similar organizations.
“I’m not at all happy about how this turned out but I think we got a fair hearing from the court,” Kowalke said. “We were dealing with plausible deniability or whatever you want to call it, and we couldn’t add anything to that by going to the state Supreme Court.”
Eastman said in an interview that despite the judge’s ruling in his favor and the lack of appeal from the plaintiff, the legal challenge to his eligibility “increased the threshold” for holding public office in Alaska. “Now you have to win a lawsuit just to be elected and have your votes counted, and that’s entirely un-American,” Eastman said.
Eastman said he incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and that several of his constituents had raised money to cover his trial costs.
“Unfortunately, Alaska courts have been weaponized against conservatives and against members of organizations like Oath Keepers,” Eastman said, calling the trial “a political inquisition.”
Joe Miller, the attorney who who represented Eastman, said in a statement that Kowalke’s decision not to appeal “is no surprise,” and went on to say that Kowalke filed the lawsuit in an effort “to restrict Alaskans’ rights to free speech and association.”
“The irony of Kowalke’s case is that he essentially accused Rep. Eastman of attempting to overturn an election when that’s precisely what he was attempting to do himself through this lawsuit,” Miller said. Eastman, who began serving in the state House in 2017, won reelection in November with over 50% of votes in a three-way race. Eastman’s victory came despite the pushback he received, including from other West Point graduates, after his name appeared on a leaked list of “lifetime” Oath Keepers members in 2021.
Throughout the trial, Eastman did not denounce the involvement of Oath Keepers in the violence that took place in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob sought to stop the transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to newly elected President Joe Biden.
Eastman said he planned to continue to be a member of the Oath Keepers moving forward, and that he did not believe it would hamper his ability to work in the Legislature. But even before his Oath Keepers membership came under scrutiny, Eastman’s controversial views and unwillingness to compromise have made him unpopular among his colleagues, even within his party.
Republicans won 21 out of 40 seats in the state House in the November election but have so far failed to form a majority. With a legislative session set to begin later this month, it remains unclear who will lead the chamber. In past years, Eastman has been accused of playing a role in blocking his own party from forming a majority, leading to the creation of a bipartisan majority caucus that included both Democrats and Republicans.
Lawmakers have said recently that conversations about leadership are ongoing among those interested in forming a bipartisan caucus as well as those on the side of a Republican majority, but neither side has been able to reach the threshold of 21 members needed to control the chamber.