Attorney General pushes back on ACLU lawsuit over court cuts

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson discuss the governor’s proposed budget at the Capitol, Jan. 30, 2018. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

On Thursday, the state responded to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging the governor violated the Alaska constitution when he vetoed money to the court system. The case was filed Wednesday by the ACLU, which says the move threatens the separation of powers among the three branches of government because the budget cuts were made as a gesture of opposition to the court’s rulings on abortion.

But, Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson disagrees with that characterization, and believes the administration is not trying to punish or coerce the judiciary.

“The governor can speak for himself, but I certainly don’t think that was his expectation, that he was going to convince them to change their decision-making,” Clarkson said during a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “He simply made a decision about where money should come from for elective abortions.”

The Department of Law’s position is the governor is acting within his constitutional authority in striking $334,700 from the court system budget, and that the accusation the cuts are punitive is irrelevant under the state constitution.

“There’s absolutely no limitation in the constitution on certain motivations or objections,” Clarkson said. “The governor can veto a budget item for any item he wants to.”

Believing the case lacks merit, Clarkson doesn’t expect the courts to take it up. He adds that having the body rule on budget cuts to itself runs the risk of diminishing public trust that the judiciary is acting impartially.

“Well there clearly is a conflict of interest. And there’s clearly an appearance of impropriety,” Clarkson said. “I think if the judiciary were to take this case and literally rule on it in their favor against the executive and legislative branches, and create an imbalance in the separation of powers in that way, public trust in the judiciary would take a major blow.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs in Anchorage superior court.