Chief Justice Bolger, who butted heads with Dunleavy, recuses himself from recall lawsuit

Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger today recused himself from ruling on the lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the effort to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy from office.

In a two-page order issued today, Bolger said his public statements such as his address to the Alaska Legislature where he pledged “to do our work independently of any outside political interests or financial influence” could cause someone to questions his fairness in the case.

Bolger took the unusual step last month of requesting that the parties in the case let him know if they believe he should withdraw. He said neither Recall Dunleavy nor the State of Alaska made such a motion, but said that after reviewing the case further that he felt it was appropriate.

“I do not have any personal bias or prejudice concerning the parties or attorneys involved in the case. However, I have special public responsibilities as the administrative head of the Alaska Court System and as the chairman ex-officio of the Alaska Judicial Council. In those capacities, I have made public statements that could suggest strong disagreement with the governor’s conduct on some very fundamental issues affecting the judicial branch, conduct that forms part of the basis for the recall petition under consideration,” he wrote. “In other words, this is a case where a reasonable person might question whether my judgment is affected by my overriding public responsibilities to the justice system.”

The recall effort includes two court-related claims among the reasons it’s pushing to remove Dunleavy from office. One is Dunleavy’s refusal to appoint a judge by the 45-day deadline, an issue that was only resolved after Bolger stepped in to remind Dunleavy of the rules set out in the Alaska Constitution. The second is Dunleavy’s veto of $334,700 from the court system budget as retaliation for the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down a 2014 anti-abortion law, which has spawned its own lawsuit.

Both were cleared by Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth as legitimate grounds for the recall effort.

Bolger also raised concerns about how Dunleavy had handled the court’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. The governor took the unprecedented step of amending the court system’s budget—removing the systems’ request to restore the $334,700 to its budget—before he submitted it to the Legislature.

Dunleavy eventually relented, submitting the money in his amended budget submitted last month but maintained his ability to veto the court’s budget.

At his address to the Alaska Legislature last month, Bolger was adamant that a fair and independent judiciary is critical and promised not to bow to outside pressures in a not-so-subtle hint at the tumult with the governor.

“The court system will continue to do our work independently of any outside political interests or financial influences so that the public can continue to be certain that each court decision is fair and impartial,” he said.

While Bolger would argue that he’s stood up for the independence of the judiciary, it’s drawn criticism from Dunleavy’s supporters. Anti-recall Stand Tall with Mike withdrew from the lawsuit and in an unsigned statement accused the judiciary of being unable to fairly rule on the matter, saying that the case has already been decided.

Dunleavy said he had no part in the statement and was less-than-enthusiastic when he was asked to distance himself from the attacks on the court’s credibility.

“I’m not prepared to say that the Supreme Court justice is bound and determined to stick it to myself,” he said at a news conference. “I’m not prepared to say that. I don’t have evidence of that.”

Oral arguments are expected in front of the Alaska Supreme Court on March 25. In his place, the state has brought on former Alaska Supreme Court Justice Robert Eastaugh, who was appointed under Gov. Wally Hickel and left the court in 2009.

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