A Superior Court judge ruled Monday that Anchorage Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong established her residency in Alaska in time to run for office this year, clearing the way for the Democrat to keep the seat she won in the 2022 elections.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Herman Walker delivered the ruling in a lawsuit brought by Armstrong’s Republican challenger, former representative-turned-perennial candidate Liz Vazquez, that was based on a series of accusations first publicized by the Alaska Landmine blog.
The claims hinged on a social media post as well as applications for a fishing license and voter registration that they said showed she established her residency after the June 1, 2019 deadline to have run for office in 2022. After a false start, it all culminated in an election challenge that brought both Armstrong and her husband Ben Kellie to the stand to testify about how they met, how their relationship formed and Armstrong’s visit to Alaska in May 2019.
Putting far more personal information into the official record than most would ever be comfortable with, Armstrong and Kellie explained they had an immediate and strong connection after meeting on a video call with a friend. Following a pair of Power Point presentations given by Kellie about Alaska, Armstrong visited Alaska from May 10 to May 20. By the end of the trip, she decided she would stay in Alaska with Kellie. She left to take care of some per-scheduled business and returned on June 9.
Vazquez’s legal team, Republican attorneys Stacey Stone and Richard Moses, argued the trip was merely a vacation and that Armstrong’s residency only started on the return flight.
Relying on previous case law about establishing residency in Alaska, Judge Walker disagreed with their assertions, ruling Armstrong became a resident the moment she decided to make Alaska her home.
“Armstrong came to Alaska and fell in love with her husband Kellie. Armstrong testified that her intent to move here was made in the early morning hours of of May 20, 2019,” Walker wrote. “Once residency is established, a resident may temporarily leave Alaska and maintain their residential status if they intend to return.”
Alaska case law on residency puts weight on an individual’s intentions. Intending to live somewhere and intending to return during temporary trips away is enough to establish and maintain residency.
“Case law authorizes the court to consider the emotional and physical connection to one’s residence. Armstrong made an emotional decision to make Alaska her home—she fell in love,” wrote Judge Walker. “Both Armstrong and Kellie testified that their relationship became ‘romantic’ prior to her arrival in May based on their initial meeting on the video call. Armstrong further testified that after traveling the world and living ‘location independent,’ she was attracted to Alaska by Kellie’s two power point presentations showcasing Alaska. Armstrong made the decision to ‘go all in,’ and move to Alaska because she was in love.”
Judge Walker found none of the documents presented by Vazquez’s team as evidence that Armstrong didn’t fulfill the residency requirements, largely because he found Armstrong’s explanation that she wanted to play it safe on the applications—knowing Alaska’s reputation for being a stickler on fishing applications—reasonable.
The 33rd Alaska State Legislature will convene on Jan. 17, 2023.
What’s next: The decision could be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, but it would be an uphill battle. That’s because Judge Walker’s determination that Armstrong became a resident on May 20, 2019 is an evidentiary ruling that requires the highest threshold of “clear error” to overturn rather than a dispute over how the law should be applied. (That’s why the plaintiffs challenging Rep. David Eastman’s eligibility to hold office under the Alaska Constitution’s disloyalty clause said they didn’t appeal.)