Colberg's resignation unfortunate for Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Last month, a very unfortunate thing happened in Alaska, one that reflects turbulent times and one that merits reflection.

I'm referring to the decision of Talis Colberg to resign as Alaska's attorney general. Almost everyone I know who ever met Talis personally, and with whom I have communicated since his decision to resign, has expressed unhappiness with the way things turned out. Life goes on and things change, but not always for the better.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a fellow alumnus of Palmer High School. Talis and I share the distinction of being Palmer Moose. That stated, I didn't really know him as a young man; it's more accurate to say that our families knew one another, and attended the same church.

I didn't really get to know Talis until he was appointed as attorney general by Gov. Sarah Palin, but all of my interactions with him since that time lead me to the firm conclusion that he's as honest and decent as anyone who ever led the Alaska Department of Law. His premature resignation is a loss to those who served under him, to the governor and her cabinet, and to all Alaskans.

Talis resigned after increasingly volatile and voluble criticism from a number of legislators and others about the way he handled subpoenas issued in the wake of the so-called 'Troopergate' investigation. What he did in that situation as attorney general is probably the exact same thing that any of his predecessors in that position would have done had they the courage to do so, and what their respective bosses would have wanted them to do.

Indeed, what he did was exactly what Alaska law calls for, providing legal advice and counsel to the governor and other state officers. If you doubt the truth of that assertion, I refer you to AS 44.23.020. Just as the Legislature has its own attorneys, the Executive Branch has its legal team, and no one ought to be surprised when these attorneys advocate zealously on behalf of their clients. Merely because one is dissatisfied with the outcome of a particular legal struggle, one does not become justified in ad hominen attacks on one's legal opponent.

The debate about the propriety of the aforementioned legislative subpoenas has been argued extensively elsewhere, and I'll comment on it only briefly here. But for Sen. John McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate, the whole mess surrounding a certain rogue state trooper would never have metastasized into what it became. The heat of the national and international media spotlight altered the chemistry to an extent that some people behaved differently than they would have otherwise done, but Talis Colberg was not one of those people. I am quite confident that he did what he would have done under any circumstance: argue on behalf of his clients, after reasonable inquiry, a position that was well grounded in fact and was warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and not for any improper purpose.

The Talis Colberg I got to know drew the largest crowd at a Juneau Bar Association luncheon I've ever seen, and those in attendance were charmed by his presentation. He kindly stayed afterwards to take questions and to get to know the lawyers who came to hear him speak. The Talis Colberg I got to know selflessly volunteered to stand in for Palin when she was unable to attend the Governor's Awards for the Arts & Humanities, and again charmed the crowd with his soft-spoken, self-effacing erudition.

The Talis Colberg I got to know took the opportunity to see every theatrical performance when he was in Juneau, because he respected the work done by Juneau's theatrical community. While I obviously appreciated this as an actor and arts advocate, I also thought it was a great thing because I think our leaders tend to lead better when their minds are open to the arts and what they have to teach us about the human experience.

In the end, perhaps the political fishbowl was not the right place for Talis Colberg. I think he had a great deal to offer, and I have heard nothing but praise for him from attorneys who worked under him at the Department of Law, even those who I know didn't vote for Palin. I wish Talis the best as he re-enters private life, and I thank him for his willingness to serve the time he did as Alaska's attorney general. I hope other Alaskans will do the same.

• Ben Brown is an attorney living in Juneau.

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