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State rejects Senate vacancy initiative

Proposition backers say they will take case to court

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman on Tuesday denied certification of a ballot initiative that would require a statewide election to fill vacancies in the U.S. Senate.

The vacancies are now filled by the governor. The initiative largely is in response to Gov. Frank Murkowski's appointment of his daughter Lisa Murkowski to fill his Senate seat last year upon becoming governor.

Leman rejected the initiative on the recommendation of state Attorney General Gregg Renkes, stating that it would violate the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The initiative group Trust the People said it will sue the state over the decision.

Ratified by the states in 1913, the 17th Amendment says the process of filling a vacancy to the U.S. Senate is at the sole discretion of the Alaska Legislature.

Renkes argued in a prepared statement issued Tuesday that the initiative would "exercise authority granted to the Legislature and, because the Legislature would be prohibited from repealing the initiative for two years if enacted, would strip the Legislature of authority granted to it by the U.S. Constitution."

State Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat and initiative sponsor, said the state should play a limited role when deciding whether or not to certify initiatives.

He noted that initiative petitions must have 100 signatures and must not violate provisions laid out in the state constitution.

Croft likened the decision to a court preempting the Legislature on a bill that has not yet been passed.

"I would say that never has a court stepped into a legislative process," he said. "And here the people are acting as the Legislature.

"If an unelected attorney general can deprive the right to vote on an initiative for his speculation on its constitutionality, then we don't have much initiative rights left."

State Rep. Harry Crawford, an Anchorage Democrat and initiative sponsor, said Trust the People will take the issue back to court within the next week.

"It's real clear that they can't stop this thing on constitutional grounds," Crawford said.

The initiative was first submitted on Aug. 6 but was rejected for technical deficiencies. It was resubmitted on Sept. 4. Trust the People took that state to court on Oct. 10 to expedite the review and Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner ruled that Leman must decide whether or not to certify by Oct. 27.

Sponsors have argued that a lengthy legal review of the initiative has jeopardized its chances of making it onto the 2004 ballot. The group must collect more than 23,000 signatures by Jan. 12 to make it onto the '04 ballot.

Crawford said he believes the state has stalled its decision to certify for political reasons.

If the initiative does not make it onto the 2004 ballot, it gives Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski two years to fill the seat that could be vacated by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, Crawford said.

"I think that it's mainly they want this option while they have a Republican governor that can appoint another Republican to a U.S. Senate seat," he said.

Renkes accused the sponsors of politicizing the process by rushing the legal review of the initiative.

"We pursued our review diligently and with the care that is required of important questions such as this," Renkes said in a prepared statement. "I regret that the sponsors have attempted to politicize our review and tried to pressure us into a premature end to our efforts."

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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