After U.S. Supreme Court opinion leaks, Alaska governor candidates share their thoughts

Alaska’s constitution protects legal abortion, but that could change

By: - May 11, 2022 7:07 pm

Rep. Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla and a candidate for governor, talks to a reporter on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in the Alaska State Capitol at Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

One week ago, the political news website Politico published a bombshell report saying that the U.S. Supreme Court is prepared to overturn prior rulings that uphold the legal right to an abortion.

Here in Alaska, the state supreme court has repeatedly ruled that the privacy clause of the Alaska Constitution protects abortion access. Even if the federal Supreme Court acts as expected, abortion would remain legal in Alaska — at least for now.

Changes in the Alaska Supreme Court, a constitutional amendment or a constitutional convention could change that in the middle-to-long term. As a result, candidates in this year’s state elections are predicting that abortion will be a banner topic.

Through Wednesday, six people have signed up to run for governor, and incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy will be the seventh after he announces his lieutenant governor candidate sometime this month.

No women have signed up to run for governor yet — the deadline to register is June 1 — and five candidates are perceived as frontrunners for the four spots in November’s general election. 

Gara the ‘only pro-choice candidate’

Former Democratic state Rep. Les Gara describes himself as the “only pro-choice candidate for governor in this race,” a statement that no candidate has disputed to date.

Gara participated in abortion-rights rallies before and after the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft decision was leaked to the public. 

He said that Alaska Supreme Court rulings protecting abortions may become “the last line of defense for a woman’s right to choose,” but added that it would be a mistake to think they offer adequate protection.

The U.S. Supreme Court showed how interpretations can change over time, Gara said.

“The moment right-wing judges read up the right to privacy and say, yeah, there’s a right to privacy, but it doesn’t cover abortion — just like they’re doing on the federal level — that’s the moment women lose their rights,” he said.

To that end, Gara said that if elected, he would screen judicial nominees for their positions on abortion and would not appoint an attorney general who opposes abortion.

Kurka and Dunleavy strongly oppose legal abortion

At the opposite end of the issue from Gara is state Rep. Christopher Kurka, a Republican from Wasilla. Kurka is a staunch opponent of legal abortion and has proposed legislation that would criminalize it.

Kurka said that if elected, he will not follow the state supreme court and on “Day One” would cease state funding for abortion services. 

The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that it cannot selectively stop Medicaid-funded abortions, but Kurka said he believes strongly enough to bypass the court in this case.

Speaking Tuesday, he said he has not finished reading the entire draft opinion but believes it could cause the state supreme court to re-evaluate its prior rulings because both the federal decision and state decisions were based upon the applicability of privacy protections to abortion. 

If the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that privacy protections don’t legalize abortion, might the state supreme court decide the same?

“I would think that is going to pull the proverbial rug or foundation out from underneath our own supreme court’s Alaskan caselaw,” he said.

Through campaign staff, incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy declined a request for an interview on the topic. In his first campaign and while in office, Dunleavy has consistently opposed legal abortions. Under his administration, Alaska joined the lawsuit from Mississippi that resulted in the leaked Supreme Court opinion.

The governor attempted to veto court-system funding in retaliation for abortion-related rulings, but that veto was later ruled unconstitutional. 

Speaking to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner last week, Dunleavy called for a “robust discussion on the future of abortion access in Alaska” if the U.S. Supreme Court acts as now expected.

Walker, Pierce say change is unlikely

Independent former Gov. Bill Walker, running for re-election after losing to Dunleavy in 2018, said he is personally “pro-life” but would uphold the rulings of the Alaska Supreme Court protecting legal abortion.

“We will continue the same as we had in our administration before: a status quo,” Walker said. 

In his prior term as governor, Walker’s administration defended a state law that attempted to limit the number of abortions funded by Medicaid and appealed the issue to the state supreme court. A ruling, released after Walker left office, found the law unconstitutional.

Asked whether the state would become legally involved in abortion issues beyond state borders, as Dunleavy has done, Walker said his administration did become involved in Outside lawsuits before.

“I think some of it was, in hindsight, we probably wouldn’t do it again,” he said. Asked to clarify, he said it was “an LGBT issue” and was unable to provide a specific example.

Walker said he would not screen judicial candidates as Gara said he would do.

“Having appointed 27 judges in the past, I tend to look at the whole person and not necessarily (compartmentalize) them,” Walker said.

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The position of Republican candidate Charlie Pierce, the mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, was more difficult to discern this week. A campaign spokesman said he was unavailable for a phone interview but offered a written statement in which Pierce said, “Regardless of the decision, Alaska state law on the issue is not changed. Any change will require a vote of the people for a constitutional change.”

Pierce identified himself as “pro-life” and said that if elected, he would “advocate for enhanced adoption services” as an alternative to abortion and “advocate for a strong support system for women who find themselves with an undesired pregnancy.”

The statement did not indicate whether a Pierce administration would seek to change the constitution or otherwise block legal abortion and contraception here.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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