Alaska News Nightly: July 14, 2011

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Conservationists Lend Support to Alaska’s Subsistence Whalers

Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow

Alaska’s subsistence whalers are winning support from an unlikely faction at this year’s International Whaling Commission meeting: the conservationists.

The event is expected to be a precursor for next year’s meeting, when the IWC is expected to decide whether or not to renew subsistence whaling quotas for another five years.

North Slope Borough Mayer Edward Itta is in Jersey, England for the international gathering. He says Alaska’s delegation have spent much of their time trying to educate and build relationships with the non-governmental organizations at the meeting.

Itta says in the past, conservationists had been most concerned with issues like whales that had been struck but lost, and the length of time it takes for harvested whales to perish after being struck.

He says delegates from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission weapons improvement program made a presentation this week showing their recent efforts to address those issues.

More than half of the IWC commissioners this year are new since the last time subsistence whaling quotas were up for renewal. Itta says it looks like that will work in favor of native hunters, but won’t guarantee an easy time during next year’s discussions.

The United States is one of only four countries in the IWC involved in aboriginal subsistence whaling.

Senate Finance Committee Examines Efforts to Lower Oil Taxes

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The state Senate Finance committee is taking the first steps toward understanding what is expected to be a major point of contention during next year’s session — a renewed effort by the Governor and members of the House of Representatives to lower oil taxes.

Fairbanks Meets Deadline for Redistricting Challenge

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Lawsuits have been filed challenging Alaska’s redistricting plan. The deadline to sue over the state board developed voting district map was Wednesday, and challenges are coming from Fairbanks.

U.S. House Passes Bill to Curtail EPA

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

The Republican-controlled House passed a bill Wednesday that would sharply curtail the federal government’s role in protecting waters from pollution by barring the Environmental Protection Agency from overruling state decisions on water quality. The bill – HR 2018 — passed on a 239-184 vote. Alaska’s Representative Don Young voted for the bill.

Republicans say the EPA needs to be reigned in because it is running roughshod over states’ rights and killing resource development projects and jobs. Sixteen Democrats joined the majority of Republicans in supporting it. The White House threatened to veto the bill, saying it “would roll back the key provisions, which have been the underpinning of the 40 years of progress in making the nation’s waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable. Under the Clean Water Act, states have primary responsibility for protecting waterways after the EPA signs off on their plans. But the agency can step in if it thinks water resources aren’t being adequately protected.

Two Alaskan Judges on Path to Federal Bench

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Two Alaskan judges passed a first test Wednesday on their way to jobs on the federal bench. But there’s still far to go before either woman can serve.

Alaska Justice Morgan Christen and Alaska Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason withstood questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two have been nominated by President Obama for federal judge-ships.

Democrat Senator Mark Begich recommended them for the jobs, and Republican Lisa Murkowski spoke glowingly about them to her Senate colleagues Wednesday:

“Today’s hearing is especially historic because if confirmed Morgan Christen and Gleason will be the first two Alaskan women to serve on the federal bench.  As a member of the Alaskan bar and as a Senior senator from Alaska, let me say the President could not have nominated two more qualified individuals to fill these seats.”

Christen is up for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and would be only the third Alaskan even to sit on it. Gleason is up for a position as district court judge.

One of the committee’s most vocal Republicans, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, asked Judge Christen about her philosophy, and whether she thought empathy should enter into decisions.  President Obama once said judges should have empathy, a comment conservatives attacked… and Hatch doesn’t think it should factor into rulings. Christen said she doesn’t either.

“We’re not allowed to tilt the scales depending on how we feel about a case. But I believe there are life-lessons that we’ve all learned that are very important that judges retain and take with them to the bench. By that I mean that I think it’s important we’re always mindful that there are real people on receiving end of orders, and very often people’s lives on hold, or their businesses on hold waiting for our decisions. That’s why it matters very much that our work is timely for example.”

Democratic Minnesota Senator Al Franken asked Christen about her work as a private attorney representing the state during the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. She described what it was like working for a big team, and then the hearing hit one of its moments of levity – not all that common for such events. Franken may be known to Americans as the former Saturday Night Live comedian, but he often keeps a straight face as Senator.  Franken asked about the oil spill’s cause.

“Leading up to that there was some drinking involved was there?

Not by the litigation team.

I’ll do the jokes.

I kind of like yours better…”

That last voice was Senator Hatch, who said he’s throwing his support to Christen’s nomination, which bodes well for her.

Judge Gleason got a tougher grilling, mostly by the committee’s top Republican, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.  He focused on a report written back in 1985 when Gleason was in private practice, and coordinated a review of Alaska’s laws on sex discrimination.  Grassley called its findings controversial.

“You stated quote ‘the constitutional guarantee of equal rights and protection and the right to privacy present a strong argument in support of decriminalization of prostitution.’”

Gleason explained that she was the legal coordinator of the report, but not its sole author, and does not remember which sections of the 26-year-old study she wrote. But she said she has no strong opinion on legalizing prostitution.

“I really have not given any reflection on that. I do feel that there are issues in our society with regard to; it’s essentially a legislative prerogative. And if there were a law one way or the other it would be my obligation to enforce that law. OK…”

Grassley says the 1985 report takes the position that veterans’ benefits have gone farther than they were intended – to get service members reintegrated into civilian society – and that the benefits discriminate against women since fewer of them serve. But Gleason repeated that she didn’t author the report, and said she does not think any veterans should be denied benefits.

Grassley also asked if a state could impose restrictions on abortions.

“In my role of judge I could be called upon to address issues in the future but primarily my role would be to enforce the existing law of the land as annunciated by the United States Supreme Court.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on whether the nominees should be advanced to the full senate; first the record will be held open for a week.

Nominees have been getting confirmed by the senate at a snail’s pace due to partisan gridlock, so there’s no clear sense of when the judges’ could actually take the bench.

Joe Miller Yet to Decide on Court Order Challenge

Associated Press

Joe Miller hasn’t yet decided if he’ll challenge a court order to pay the state legal fees related to his election challenge last year.

The deadline for a decision is next week.

A state court judge ordered Miller pay more than $17,300 in costs incurred by the state during his challenge to the U.S. Senate race last fall.

Miller sued over how the state handled the election and counted votes for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ran as a write-in after losing her primary to Miller.

In state court, winning parties can seek up to 20 percent of their attorney fees in cases where money wasn’t at issue.

Three courts, including the Alaska Supreme Court, refused to overturn election results favoring Murkowski.

Goshawk Attacks Hiker near Bethel

Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel

A trip in the Alaskan wilderness has plenty of perils. Wild animals and attacks are certainly one of them. So if you’re an outdoor enthusiast you’re probably used to surveying the land for signs of bear or moose. Butl, as one man near Bethel found out, you’ve also got to be cautious of what’s in the air.

Co-ops Shut-Down High Bycatch Fishing Grounds

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

After taking in more chum salmon than usual, the pollock cooperatives agreed to put their rolling hotspot program into gear and shut down fishing grounds with high bycatch. That seemed to work – for a while. But now, bycatch has gone up again, and the pollock fleet faces more closures.