Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor suggested Thursday that it would be appropriate to impeach Gov. Tony Knowles if he does not appeal the Katie John subsistence case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Taylor temporarily derailed cruise ship legislation, supposedly the sole subject of a special legislative session called by Knowles, in order to hold a hearing on whether the administration would appeal by the Aug. 5 deadline. The Wrangell Republican said there is no more important issue than the sovereignty of the state, which he believes has been violated by federal law on regulating subsistence on navigable waters.
"There won't be much state left if he fails to appeal," said Taylor, who ran for governor against Knowles in 1998 and has remained an ardent critic of the administration.
Taylor's sudden committee hearing delayed action on the cruise ship legislation in the Senate Transportation Committee. But Transportation Chairman John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican, agreed that the Katie John case is "the most important thing we can deal with."
The 1995 Katie John ruling is named for an Athabascan elder who in 1990 was denied a subsistence fish camp on the Copper River. So far, the case has established that federal officials can ensure subsistence rights for rural residents on most waters in Alaska. The 9th Circuit reaffirmed that decision May 7.
When administration officials failed to show up for Thursday's Judiciary committee hearing, Taylor started speculating about the implications of not appealing, which he said would undercut a key Alaska Supreme Court ruling. "Would impeachment lie (in wait) for violation of oath of office ... ?" he wondered.
Taylor said he found it hard to imagine "in my wildest dreams" that Knowles would not appeal, especially given statements by the Democratic governor in the past that he would exhaust the state's legal remedies in fighting federal intrusion into resource management. But the failure of Attorney General Bruce Botelho and other administration officials to make themselves available during a special session of the Legislature was "shocking," he said.
"I think the attorney general will be available today," said Bob King, spokesman for Knowles, this morning. "But I think what the attorney general is going to say is probably that the governor is reviewing the case. ... He has 90 days: That's the court process and the court procedure."
King declined to respond to Taylor's comments on impeachment.
Taylor said there would be nothing disproportional about removing Knowles from office for not taking another step to defend the state's position in an 11-year legal fight. "I think it's always the question when state sovereignty is involved," he said.
Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican who temporarily left the majority during a protest in the 1999 special session on subsistence called by Knowles, agreed that impeachment would be appropriate if Katie John isn't appealed. The governor has a constitutional charge to defend the state "to the best of his ability," Ogan said.
Carl Rosier of the Alaska Outdoor Council said a failure to appeal would be "totally disastrous." Already federal subsistence officials have made politically rather than biologically based decisions on the resource, such as declaring the Kenai Peninsula rural and closing sport and commercial fishing for kings and chums in the Yukon-Kuskokwim drainages, he said.
Sen. Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican, said the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against the state in the Katie John case, is overturned 85 percent of the time when cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Cowdery said, in light of that, it would be inexcusable not to appeal.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.