Alaska Supreme Court affirms Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong’s residency

Following oral arguments today, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled in a 2-1 decision that Anchorage Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong did, in fact, establish her residency in time to run for office in the 2022 elections.

With the start of the legislative session set for next Tuesday, the last-minute appeal could have had a significant impact on the still-undecided race for a majority in the evenly divided House. Republican former Rep. Liz Vazquez—who lost to Armstrong by more than 10 percentage points—sought to disqualify Armstrong based on a handful of social media posts and other evidence that she said proved Armstrong didn’t establish her residency in time, arguing that she should be awarded the seat instead.

Armstrong has been an active participant with legislator trainings ahead of the start of the legislative session on Tuesday, and the ruling means she will be sworn in along with all other legislators.

Throughout the roughly hour-long oral arguments today, the three members of the Alaska Supreme Court who participated in the hearing acknowledged it was a significant ask from the Republican. That’s because Anchorage Superior Court Justice Herman Walker’s ruling—that Armstrong’s residency began when once she intended to live in Alaska after meeting her future husband on a whirlwind trip in May 2019 to Alaska—fell into the realm of evidentiary rulings, which are much more difficult to challenge.

“The trial court found there was such an intent. and we can only reverse that trial court decision if we have a firm conviction of a mistake under the clearly erroneous standard,” Chief Justice Daniel Winfree said. “That’s pretty tough.”

[Watch via Gavel Alaska: Vazquez v. Armstrong]

The proposed remedy of handing over the election from a Democrat who took more than 55% of the vote in the West Anchorage House district to a Republican who didn’t crack 45% was also a tough pill to swallow for the justices.

“Your client is requesting that she be declared the victor. Should this court worry about the fact that that would seem to disenfranchise—or at least take away the power—of 55% of people who voted in this district,” said Justice Jennifer Henderson. “Should this be a concern for us?”

Republican attorney Stacey Stone, who represented Vazquez and several supporters in this litigation, said what was important was upholding the Alaska Constitution.

“It’s unfortunate that 55% of people voted for her, but she’s not eligible to hold office in the state of Alaska,” Stone said, conceding that there were other remedies available.

Those fixes could have included disqualifying Armstrong and leaving the seat to be filled through a gubernatorial appointment and confirmation by House Democrats, or to hold an entirely new election for the seat. In either case, it’s likely that Armstrong would have been found eligible to hold the seat under the additional process.

Still, that sort of interference with an election is still considered extreme.

“Haven’t we said when looking at, I think, any of the remedies that come to mind that these are extreme and we really don’t want to do them?” asked Justice Susan Carney.

Carney, however, ultimately voted in favor of overturning the decision. While her precise reasoning wasn’t explained in today’s ruling, during questioning she highlighted law that says “a person does not gain residence in any place to which the person comes without the present intention to establish a permanent dwelling.”

Armstrong testified that she didn’t intend to stay until the very end of the trip. She left some belongings in Alaska, departed to collect her belongings and returned in early June 2019, which is when Stone argues would have been the very earliest for her to establish her residency.

“She came on a vacation with no intent to stay,” Carney said.

Kendall replied that putting such a requirement on intent when someone comes to Alaska leaves little nuance for people who come to Alaska and who, somewhere in the process of the visit, decides to stay. A person in that situation would have to leave and return in order to establish their residency.

Kendall argued that the totality of the evidence and actions taken once the decision has been made should carry the weight of the evidence about residency.

“If I stayed in the state, bought a home, had a child, volunteered in the community, all of that corroborative evidence that led back to the day that I manifested that intent corroborates that intent, objectively,” he said.

It’s also not entirely clear what led Chief Justice Daniel Winfree and Justice Jennifer Henderson voting in the affirmative. Their order simply says they “affirm the superior court’s ultimate conclusion.” A full ruling is expected at a later date.

The 2-1 ruling, however, means that whatever ultimate reasoning they reached won’t set precedent in Alaska case law. Justices Dario Borghesan and Peter Maassen recused themselves from participating in the trial.

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