Gov. Tony Knowles announced Monday that he will not appeal the Katie John subsistence case to the U.S. Supreme Court, immediately prompting one Republican opponent to call for the governor's impeachment.
Knowles told reporters he's dropping the case because it's widening the "urban-rural divide." Subsistence, the harvesting of fish and game for personal or community use, has become the centerpiece political issue for Natives concerned about the way rural areas are treated in the legislative process. John is an Athabascan elder who was denied a fishing camp on the Copper River in 1990.
And Knowles said that even had the state been successful on appeal, a court ruling would not have overturned the rural subsistence priority in federal law.
"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 will continue the process begun during his "subsistence leadership summit" two weeks ago and meet with key Alaska leaders on the wording of a state constitutional amendment for a rural subsistence priority. The Legislature's continuing failure to put such an amendment on the general election ballot helped change his mind on the court case, the governor said.
But 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. That's because Knowles wrote a newspaper column in March 2000 declaring that he would defend state sovereignty all the way to the high court, Ogan said.
Ogan conceded he "probably" doesn't have the two-thirds support of each house of the Legislature required to remove Knowles from office but said he would lobby colleagues to move forward, anyway. "I still think the possibility should be explored because the governor has, in my opinion, violated his oath."
Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, also has called for the governor's impeachment.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they go through that process," said House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican. But James said she doesn't believe two-thirds of the House would vote to remove Knowles from office and doesn't support it. The Democratic governor has just a little more than a year of his second term left and can't run for re-election, she noted.
Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the first publicly to float the idea of impeaching Knowles, during a special session in June. On Monday, Taylor called Knowles "a coward" but said he hasn't decided whether to advocate for impeachment.
Rep. Joe Hayes, a Fairbanks Democrat, said any movement in that direction - which would be only the second attempt at impeachment in state history - "would be disastrous for Alaska politics."
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 co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said he thinks legislators who advocate impeachment are serious.
"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. There has been speculation that Knowles plans a U.S. Senate run some day.
U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said in a statement today that while he agrees with Knowles on the urban-rural divide and on the importance of rural subsistence, he believes the governor has passed up the opportunity to "recover control over state waters."
"It's a sad day for states' rights," Murkowski said.
Ron Somerville of Juneau, a board member of the Territorial Sportsmen and one of the few dissenting voices at Knowles' subsistence summit, said the next governor will have to find a new way to fight federal intervention. "It could be 10 years again" before the next court case plays out, he said.
In the meantime, Alaska's commercial fisheries will be in jeopardy as federal managers and judges rule on subsistence issues, Somerville said.
Knowles previously had appealed three rulings against the state in the Katie John case. In May, a federal appeals court reaffirmed 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 the Legislature's refusal to bring the state into compliance with ANILCA has fueled "an increasingly bitter urban-rural divide" since his last appeal, overshadowing the "narrow," "technical" legal issues raised by 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."
He also recalled a recent meeting with Katie John at her home in Mentasta. "Surrounded by her extended family, we shared a dinner of moose soup, salmon and berry dishes. I learned more that day than is written in all the boxes of legal briefs in this long-lasting court battle. ... I know - we all know - that what Katie John does is not wrong. It is right."
The governor didn't set a timetable for a special session. But he said there's now momentum toward resolving the issue. After they talk with constituents, "I think people do change their minds," he said.
But Ogan said that any slim chance Knowles had of building support for a constitutional amendment is now "totally blown." 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.
James, the House majority leader, agreed. The only reason the amendment passed the House in 1999 was that it would have allowed - not required - the Legislature to establish a rural priority, she said. Knowles said Monday that the amendment he'll support would dictate that the Legislature "shall" establish a rural priority.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.