It’s been more than two weeks since Representative Max Gruenberg died, and his legacy lives on in the Capital: The House Judiciary Committee room was named after him. One area where his legacy is contested is what will happen to the legislative records he left behind.
Kayla Epstein, his widow, wants control of his records, but she’s been blocked. She hopes the documents help the bills Gruenberg was working on become law.
“He was working on a lot of legislation that he was not even intending to follow through with himself, but giving to other legislators on both sides of the aisle things he knew they’d be interested in. And I’d like to find those,” said Epstein. “That’s part of his legacy too. Making sure that those get into the right hands.”
However, lawyer Doug Gardner wrote in a memo that Gruenberg’s papers were protected by legislative immunity. Gardner directs the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency’s Legal Services office.
Anchorage Republican Representative Craig Johnson cited Gardner’s opinion in denying Epstein access to the records.
The state followed the same rules when Palmer Republican Representative Carl Gatto died in 2012.
But Epstein disagrees with that interpretation. She notes legislative immunity in Alaska is based on a similar provision in the U.S. Constitution.
“In the federal government, when a legislator dies, their papers are sent to their heirs within 90 days,” Epstein said. “That is their rules. Our rules are based on the federal rules. There really is no reason that I haven’t gotten Max’s papers.”
Legislators are talking about changing the rules, so that they will indicate what they want to happen to their records if they die in office.
Ohio State University law professor Steven Huefner has studied the issue of legislative immunity. He says the precedent for how to handle records after a legislator dies in office isn’t clear.
“What I think is important is to give members, before they pass on, an opportunity to decide what their wishes are,” said Huefner. “Obviously, you’ve got a problem here, because that didn’t happen, so in this instance, it’s tricky. But I think members ought to be able to decide ahead of time that they want their papers to become public.”
Epstein says she plans to file a request for the records soon.