My Turn: The Ben Stevens recall dismissal heads to court

Posted: Thursday, January 05, 2006

O n Jan. 4, 2006, Alaska Superior Court Judge Craig F. Stowers will hear oral arguments regarding an appeal of the state's rejection of the application to recall Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens.

The civil case is titled Citizens for Ethical Government et al vs. State of Alaska, Division of Elections et al. Stevens and the Legislative Council are interveners in the case. The public may attend the hearing.

In a memorandum dated Sept. 7, 2005, the division ruled, "the articulated grounds for recall do not satisfy the standards required of a recall summary, [and] we recommend that the application not be certified."

Recall sponsors filed an appeal and initial oral arguments were heard Dec. 15, 2005. Expedited treatment was requested, setting up the new hearing before the legislative session begins Monday, when Stevens would return as Senate president.

There is a well-established body of legal rulings and state statutes regarding the Legislative Ethics Act, misconduct in office and what constitute "corrupt practices" and grounds of "neglect of duties." They'll argue that the Division of Elections overlooked these precedents when it failed to certify the recall application, and improperly relied upon a deficient analysis by the Department of Law.

One question is whether or not the agencies had the authority to judge the "facial, factual insufficiency of the sponsors' words, and to make substantive changes and deletions" to the recall summary. It's one thing to make clerical corrections or remove inapplicable statutory frameworks, while questioning statements that do not articulate a cause, and quite another to strip away words that qualify as legitimate grounds for recall (under any one of the four allowable causes), thereby changing the sponsors' allegations altogether.

There are restrictions against squelching political voice through state censorship of constitutionally protected free speech. The state also may have disregarded the constitutionally protected, superior will of discontented voters to at any time remove those they have elected, as clearly expressed by abundant recall signatures gathered during 2005 in the South Anchorage district.

Whether state agencies exercised such a "prior restraint" against the will of the voters may or may not be argued on Wednesday. But the court will certainly review the full wording that sponsors used to identify sufficient grounds for alleged corruption, which earlier case law determined as qualifying for interpretation as grounds of neglect of duty, in a 200 words or less summary.

The plaintiffs are Michael Busey, Citizens for Ethical Government (a wing of the Republican Moderate Party of Alaska), William F. Fulton and Richard A. Sutton of Anchorage. Their legal counsel is Kenneth P. Jacobus, formerly chief counsel for the Republican Party in the Legislature.

The defendants are the state Division of Elections and its former director, Laura A. Glaiser. Michael A. Barnhill of the state will represent them.

Attorneys Michael Spaan and Barat Laporte, who filed an opposition to motion for entry of declaratory relief and Injunction on Dec. 29, represent intervener Ben Stevens. They also filed a motion for summary judgment on Dec. 28.

If the court overrules the recall application's dismissal by Elections, the logical next step would be a court order instructing the lieutenant governor's office to print formal petition books. Then the sponsors will go back into Stevens' (and their) district to collect 25 percent of eligible voters' signatures for recall.

It should be easy, as approximately 20 percent have already signed. And that's before the onslaught of media attention to the separate issues of Stevens' "secret option" regarding Adak Fisheries and the Alaska Public Office Commission's lenient handling of the first of three complaints about improper filings of financial disclosures by Stevens.

With battles on two fronts - recall and disclosures - 2006 promises to remain a year of political peril for Stevens.

• Former Alaska resident Stephen Taufen is a frequent contributor to fishing industry press.

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