Gov. Tony Knowles announced today that he will not appeal the Katie John subsistence case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which immediately triggered a call for his impeachment.
Knowles, during an Anchorage news conference, said he was dropping the case because it's widening the "urban-rural divide." And he said it would not have ended the federal government's rural priority for subsistence, one of the most contentious issues since statehood.
"We must stop a losing legal strategy that threatens to make a permanent divide among Alaskans," the governor said. "Let today be the beginning in closing the urban-rural divide."
Knowles said he would continue the process begun during his "subsistence leadership summit" two weeks ago and would meet with key Alaska leaders on the wording of a constitutional amendment establishing a rural subsistence priority in state law.
But even before the news conference ended, Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican, called for a special session of the Legislature to consider impeaching Knowles.
"The governor has proved that he's a lying hypocrite," Ogan said in an interview, referring to a newspaper column from March 2000 in which Knowles wrote that any Alaska governor would be compelled to defend state sovereignty.
Ogan, who was at the Seattle airport en route to San Francisco, said he would begin making phone calls to his legislative colleagues as soon as he arrived. He conceded he "probably" doesn't have the two-thirds support of the Legislature required to remove Knowles from office.
"I still think the possibility should be explored because the governor has, in my opinion, violated his oath," Ogan said.
Under the state constitution, two-thirds of the Senate is required to start the impeachment process by presenting a list of reasons for removing the governor from office. The House would hold a trial, with a justice of the Alaska Supreme Court presiding. A two-thirds vote of the House would be required to remove the governor.
The only previous move toward impeaching an Alaska governor was in 1985, when the Senate Rules Committee voted 3-2 against the impeachment of Gov. Bill Sheffield in connection with a controversial state building lease in Fairbanks.
Asked about impeachment, Knowles sounded dismissive.
"Oh, I've heard the talk," he said. "Rodney Dangerfield would say Alaska's a tough room. Talk of things like that are part of any controversial decision."
But Rep. Albert Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat who is also the chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the governor's staff has been researching the issue of impeachment.
"I can't see it," Kookesh said. "(But) he might as well get impeached for doing something right.. ... I think the governor's doing the morally right thing for the state."
AFN and other Native groups were poised for a permanent political break with Knowles if he appealed to the Supreme Court.
Knowles had previously appealed three rulings against the state in the Katie John case, named for an Athabascan elder who was denied a fishing camp on the Copper River in 1990. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May reaffirmed its decision in favor of John, saying that the federal government has the right under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 to enforce a rural subsistence priority on navigable waters flowing through and next to federal land.
In changing his position, Knowles said that the continued refusal of the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot protecting rural subsistence rights has caused "an increasingly bitter urban-rural divide" since his last appeal of the Katie John case.
"This blockade has occurred despite the fact that every poll shows a large majority of Alaskans supporting an amendment," Knowles said. "We have paid a high price for not allowing Alaskans to be heard on this issue."
The governor didn't set a timetable for a special session to consider a constitutional amendment and said it could even occur as an interruption of the regular session that begins in January. Asked whether such a controversial issue could be resolved during an especially pivotal election year, he said: "I don't think elections are the problem. I think they're the solution." After talking with constituents, "I think people do change their minds," he said.
But Ogan said that any chance Knowles had of building support for a constitutional amendment is now "totally blown" due to dropping the Katie John case. Not only did the governor fail to sway 10 senators who voted against an attempt to amend the constitution in 1999 - at least four of whom would have to change sides - but the House, which passed the proposed amendment with one vote to spare, wouldn't do so now, Ogan said.
Ogan acknowledged that polls have shown support for a rural priority. But the polls should be written to ask people whether they are in favor of giving up their constitutional right of equal access to state resources, he said. "A zip code discrimination is not rational."
Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the first to publicly float the idea of impeaching Knowles, during a special session in June.
Today, Taylor, citing political pressure on the governor from Natives, described Knowles' decision not to appeal as "a unilateral decision being made by a coward."
"Normally, we've had governors with integrity who keep their word," said Taylor, who ran for governor against Knowles in 1998. "What motivated Tony to do what he did a year and a half ago? And what motivated him to do what he did today?"
Dropping the case probably means there's no way to resolve the issue, because there's no avenue left to the Supreme Court, Taylor said. Alaska's congressional delegation has discouraged talk of amending ANILCA unless there is consensus in the state.
Taylor said he doesn't know whether he personally will be an advocate for impeachment and wouldn't predict whether it might happen.
Although he's skeptical, Rep. Joe Hayes, a Fairbanks Democrat, said he has been told by one member of the House Republican majority that the caucus has enough votes to do it.
"I think that would be disastrous for Alaska politics," Hayes said. "If they want to start talking the 'I word,' that definitely would in my opinion foul the atmosphere in Juneau, foul the atmosphere in Alaska."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.