Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, speaks on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives on Monday, May 2, 2022, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (James Brooks / Alaska Beacon)
A former member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly is challenging the eligibility of Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, for state office.
Randall Kowalke, aided by the civil rights law firm Northern Justice Project, filed suit in Anchorage Superior Court on Friday, saying in a legal complaint that Eastman’s membership in the Oath Keepers militia violates the disloyalty clause of the Alaska Constitution.
Attorney Savannah Fletcher, representing Kowalke, said she intends to request a preliminary injunction seeking to have Eastman removed as a candidate in this year’s legislative elections due to ineligibility.
Members of the Oath Keepers, including its founder, have been charged by the federal government with seditious conspiracy linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol.
Eastman attended protests in Washington, D.C., that preceded the riots, but he has not been linked to any violent actions.
The lawsuit is similar to unsuccessful actions filed against state and federal lawmakers in other states, but those relied on federal law and the U.S. Constitution. The Alaska Constitution’s disloyalty clause has never been cited in a court challenge here. Earlier this year, state legislators questioned whether it conflicts with free-speech rights.
“I think the takeaway is, what’s our level of tolerance? What are we going to allow from our candidates or representatives? Are we going to allow full-blown communists? Jihad folks? Fascists? Particularly those that are supporting the overthrow of our government? I guess it’s time to find out,” Kowalke said.
Eastman said Monday night that he “just heard” of the lawsuit and did not offer additional comment.
“We are aware of this lawsuit but have not yet been served,” said Patty Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law, which represents the Division of Elections in legal matters.
“The Division of Elections followed the process under State law and regulations and certified Representative Eastman as a candidate in the August 16 primary,” Sullivan said.
The Alaska Constitution’s disloyalty clause states that “No person who advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or organization or association which advocates, the overthrow by force or violence of the United States or of the State shall be qualified to hold any public office of trust or profit under this constitution.”
Earlier this year, members of the Alaska Legislature considered punishing Eastman for his membership in the Oath Keepers but ultimately took no action.
In February, the state House’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee held informational hearings about the Oath Keepers.
Matt Kriner, a senior research scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, testified during the hearings and said afterward that the difficulty for anyone attempting to disqualify Eastman is the need to establish a link between him and the Oath Keepers who have been federally charged, and the need to allow due process for the Oath Keepers who have been charged but not yet convicted.
“Pre-court case being finalized, I don’t think it meets this definition (of disloyalty),” he said.
In June, after 24 challenges, the Alaska Division of Elections upheld Eastman’s candidacy.
“DOE is aware that Representative Eastman reportedly is a member of the Oath Keepers organization and attended the rally in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. DOE does not have any specific information about these allegations in its possession. But even assuming these allegations are true, DOE has determined that they do not — without more — provide a basis to prevent Representative Eastman from running for state office,” said Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai in a letter dated June 20.
Asked why he filed suit more than a month after that letter, Kowalke said it took that long for him to get organized and to decide to file.
A former Eastman supporter, he has been redistricted out of Eastman’s state House district and said he is not attempting to sway the ongoing election. If necessary, he said, he will continue his case past the election and into the next legislative session because it will remain a live argument.
“I agree it’s kind of a tight timeline,” Fletcher said, “but we know that he’s going to make it through the primary — there are fewer than four candidates in the running for his seat — so I think we still have enough time to have the courts weigh in on this before the November election.”
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