Judge upholds Anchorage Democrat’s eligibility after legal challenge from defeated Republican
Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong is scheduled to take office when the Alaska Legislature convenes Jan. 17 in Juneau
This screenshot from the website of the Alaska Court System shows Representative-elect Jennie Armstrong testifying Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, during an evidentiary hearing. Armstrong is defending against a lawsuit that alleges she is ineligible to serve in the Alaska Legislature. (Screenshot)
An Alaska Superior Court judge has ruled against a challenge to Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong’s eligibility, clearing the way for the Anchorage Democrat to take office when the Legislature convenes Jan. 17 in Juneau.
“Based upon the subjective and objective evidence presented at trial and the credibility of the witnesses, the court finds that Armstrong meets the residency requirements,” wrote Judge Herman Walker in an order deciding the challenge.
Walker’s order could be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, which include defeated Republican state House candidate Liz Vazquez, declined comment when asked whether they intend to appeal.
“I’m grateful that the court confirmed what I knew all along,” Armstrong said, “which is that I became a resident in May 2019. I’m honored to serve House District 16 and I look forward to beginning work on the big problems facing Alaska.”
She said she doesn’t know whether the plaintiffs will appeal, but has “complete confidence that the truth would prevail again.”
Armstrong defeated Vazquez by 10 percentage points in the November general election for the state House district covering West Anchorage, including Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Soon after the election results were certified, Vazquez and four supporters sued to challenge Armstrong’s eligibility for the office.
The lawsuit was filed against the Alaska Division of Elections, but Armstrong moved to intervene in the case and took the lead role in defense. Walker dismissed an identical challenge filed before the election, saying any lawsuit needed to wait until certification.
The plaintiffs’ challenge was based on the contention that Armstrong had failed to live in Alaska for three years preceding her registration as a candidate on June 1, 2022.
Questions about Armstrong’s eligibility were based on a series of social media posts and non-resident fishing license applications published by the Alaska Landmine website, which concluded that, if accurate, they would make Armstrong ineligible to serve in the Legislature.
At a subsequent trial, Armstrong and her husband, Benjamin Kellie, testified that Armstrong made the decision to permanently move to Kellie’s Anchorage home in May 2019, during a romantic trip.
At the end of the trip, she left the state to gather personal belongings and bring them to Anchorage.
Vazquez, represented by attorneys Stacey Stone and Richard Moses, had argued that Armstrong’s residency began at the end of that return flight, which took place in June.
State law says that changing a voter’s residency “is made only by the act of removal joined with the intent to remain in another place.”
In his order, Walker noted that Alaska courts haven’t decided what makes up an “act of removal,” so he turned to Montana, which has a similar law.
In 1909, the Montana Supreme Court decided that a voter’s act of coming to Montana and selecting a new home constituted the required “removal” under the law, even though the voter subsequently left the state to “arrange his affairs to return” to Montana.
“Therefore,” Walker wrote, “some affirmative act, such as selecting a home, coupled with the intent to make that place a home, may constitute a sufficient act of removal.”
Walker said the testimony of the candidate and her husband were supported by contemporary text messages noting that she had moved in May.
“Armstrong made the decision to ‘go all in.’ and move to Alaska because she was in love,” Walker wrote. “She left the state for less than three weeks and tried to come back between her commitments. The court considers Armstrong’s May 20, 2019, emotional decision to spend the rest of her life with Kellie, a factor relevant to establish her residency.”
Armstrong was represented by attorneys Scott Kendall and Samuel Gottstein. Asked whether he expects an appeal, Kendall said that if one comes, he’s confident that it will be decided in Armstrong’s favor.
“From the very start, this case was nothing more than a half-baked political stunt, and any appeal of Judge Walker’s decision would be no better,” he said.
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