Alaska Gov. Dunleavy wields veto pen to attack state Supreme Court over abortion ruling

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to a crowd in Anchorage earlier this year. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media)

Alaska conservatives have fought for decades to block the state from paying for what they call “elective” abortions – those outside cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger.

But over those decades, they’ve been stymied by the Alaska Supreme Court, which has rejected their efforts on constitutional grounds — most recently in February.

Those rulings have negated lawmakers’ efforts to strip abortion-related funding from the state budget. So on Friday, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy employed a new tactic: He vetoed $335,000 from the budget of the Alaska Supreme Court.

“The legislative and executive branch are opposed to state-funded elective abortions; the only branch of government that insists on state-funded elective abortions is the Supreme Court,” Dunleavy’s administration wrote in a budget document released Friday. “The annual cost of elective abortions is reflected by this reduction.”

A court system spokeswoman declined to comment on the veto, which represents a little less than half a percent of the system’s yearly budget. A spokesman for Dunleavy, Matt Shuckerow, declined to answer questions about the decision.

The move was immediately cheered by abortion opponents and denounced by supporters of abortion rights.

Dunleavy’s critics said the veto marks the second case in which he’s undermined the Alaska Constitution and the judiciary’s independence. It follows his temporary refusal in March to follow the constitutionally-outlined process for appointing a judge to the Palmer Superior Court.

“What the governor is essentially trying to do is penalize the court system for accurately and reasonably interpreting the Constitution consistent with the history and consistent with court precedent,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, an attorney. He added: “It reflects a lack of respect for the rule of law.”

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

In the 1976 Hyde Amendment, Congress barred the federal government from paying for abortion except in extreme cases.

Alaska’s health department in 1998 adopted regulations to align the state’s Medicaid program with the Hyde Amendment. But in a 2001 decision, the state Supreme Court rejected that move, saying the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection guarantee requires the state to give “uniform and high-quality medical care” both to women who choose to have abortions, and those who choose to give birth.

In 2013 and 2014, both the health department and the state Legislature attempted to restrict state-funded abortions to cases when they were “medically necessary.” In February, the Supreme Court, in a 4-1 decision, invalidated those restrictions as well.

Social conservatives have rejected the justices’ legal reasoning. And they’ve argued that the state’s Constitutionally-outlined system for selecting judges skews liberal. (The seven-member, nonpartisan Alaska Judicial Council, which screens applicants for judgeships, is made up of three attorneys, three members of the public and the Alaska Supreme Court’s chief justice.)

“The majority of the Alaska Supreme Court has taken a very partisan position on state funding for abortion here in Alaska,” Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman said in a phone interview Friday. “And there’s really no legal or constitutional basis for that.”

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Critics said Dunleavy’s move sets a dangerous precedent. The courts, they argued, should be free to make decisions based on what the Constitution says – not based on their fear of backlash from another branch of government.

“When you have a court system being punished financially for executing the rights given to Alaskans in our state Constitution, that’s a threat to our democracy,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz.

For the most part, each of Alaska’s three branches of government try to tread carefully around the others’ territory.

The courts avoid infringing on the Legislature’s internal workings; lawmakers rarely meddle with the budget for the governor’s office, and vice versa.

But Eastman said elected officials like he and Dunleavy shouldn’t have to defer to the Supreme Court justices’ interpretation of the Constitution.

“I take the same oath to the Alaska Constitution that the five members of the Supreme Court take,” Eastman said. “The oath I took was not to follow blindly after whatever it is that members of the Supreme Court say the Constitution says. That’s not the oath. Maybe some people think it should be, but it’s not.”

Eastman and other conservatives cheered Dunleavy’s decision. In a message to supporters, Jim Minnery, head of the anti-abortion group Alaska Family Action, wrote that the Supreme Court “will start feeling the pain of their own arrogance.”