Ross runs into resistance

Legislative hearings begin on attorney general confirmation

Posted: Thursday, April 09, 2009

Confirmation hearings for Gov. Sarah Palin's choice for attorney general got off to a spirited start Wednesday as a Senate committee grilled Wayne Anthony Ross on his views regarding everything from family law to subsistence.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Unlike his mild mannered predecessor Talis Colberg, a small town lawyer who'd specialized in worker's compensation claims up until he was appointed the state's top lawyer, the flamboyant Ross has generated plenty of controversy, from his newspaper columns to his two runs for governor, during his decades long career as an Anchorage attorney.

"I have got a binder full of things that you've said over the years and articles that you've written over the years," Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, told Ross at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "Some of the things you have said are extremely divisive and I don't know that right now, at this time in our state, it's in our best interests to have such a divisive figure."

Palin's nod to the National Rifle Association director was applauded by gun rights advocates but slammed by Alaska Native groups over his views on subsistence rights.

Ross acknowledged he took many controversial positions as a private attorney but said he would wear a different hat as the attorney general and take his cue from the state's policy makers. But he said he would welcome direction to resist outside interference in the state's affairs, such as the federal law that guarantees a subsistence hunting and fishing preference for rural residents.

"I'm just the general who carries out the campaign. My job is to win the war after you decide to carry out the war," Ross said.

Ross said his overarching duty would be to uphold the state constitution, and he said he would not want to see it amended in order for the state to regain management of subsistence on federal lands. He represented sport hunters in a 1989 lawsuit that overturned the rural preference, arguing that the federal law conflicts with that document's equal protection clause.

Donny Olson, D-Nome, said his constituents overwhelmingly oppose Ross' appointment.

"I'm concerned that as the general, the casualties may indeed be those people who are out there in rural Alaska that I represent, that I've had torrents of e-mails and torrents of communication from, stating that they have difficulty with your appointment," Olson said.

But Ross argued the federal law is a bad system, cutting out traditional subsistence users in the Native village of Eklutna because they live too close to Anchorage while granting rights to well to do residents who happen to live in designated rural areas.

Committee Chairman Hollis French, D-Anchorage, grilled Ross on an article he wrote 18 years ago in which he criticized attorneys in the Office of Child Services, saying they were intent on destroying family unity.

Ross told the committee he thought they were trying to boost the numbers unnecessarily in order to win more funding from the state Legislature, but he said it appeared the system had improved since then.

Ross also was asked what he thought about former Rep. Vic Kohring, whom he briefly represented. Ross said he believes the Wasilla Republican who is currently serving jail time on corruption charges was "innocent but naive."

Ross also said he disagreed with Palin when she called on Kohring to resign before he had been tried. Ross said he disagreed when she made the same call regarding former Sen. Ted Stevens upon his conviction.

"When you have a public official calling on someone to resign, it's like saying that person is guilty," Ross said.

Asked his views on the death penalty, Ross said he was opposed but if a bill passed to reinstate capital punishment in Alaska, "My job is to administer the law, so I would uphold the law."

Asked who would be his clients as attorney general, Ross said he would have quite a few people to advise from the governor to state officials. But he said his duty to the law would come first and it would be his job to defend the constitution and not the governor.

A public hearing on the confirmation drew testimony from all sides. Gay rights advocates panned the governor's pick.

In 1993, Ross wrote an article opposing a proposed Anchorage city ordinance barring discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, saying the bill gave "extra rights to those whose lifestyle was a crime only a few years ago, and whose beliefs are certainly immoral in the eyes of anyone with some semblance of intelligence and moral character."

Marcia Buck of Juneau questioned whether Ross would fairly represent all Alaskans.

"We need an attorney who would represent all Alaskans equally, including gay lesbian and transgender Alaskans," Buck said.

But Jake Jacobson of Kodiak praised Ross for his courage in doing the right thing even when it was unpopular and his devotion to the law.

"We need a lawyer, not a politician for attorney general," Jacobson said. "I know he will serve all Alaskans well."

The committee will allow Ross a chance to respond to the public comments on Monday.

He will face the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. The Legislature will decide on his confirmation on April 16.

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