Alaska Supreme Court will hear challenge to Anchorage Democrat’s legislative eligibility

A lower court has already ruled in favor of Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong, who is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 17

By: - January 11, 2023 12:00 pm
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)

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)

A Superior Court ruling that upheld the legislative eligibility of Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, is being appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Late Tuesday, defeated Republican candidate Liz Vazquez and four supporters filed the appeal with the state’s high court, asking justices to overturn the Monday decision by Judge Herman Walker.

The Alaska Legislature convenes Jan. 17, and the plaintiffs asked for expedited consideration by the Supreme Court, which granted that request later Tuesday. Oral arguments have been scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Friday.

Vazquez is being represented by attorneys Stacey Stone, Richard Moses and Anna Cometa, who declined comment Wednesday morning.

In a preliminary document, Vazquez’s attorneys say Walker’s decision incorrectly applied the Alaska Constitution and state law.

They also contend Walker erroneously used a 1909 Montana Supreme Court decision when making his ruling and inappropriately based the start of Armstrong’s Alaska residency on her “emotional decision to make Alaska her home.”

The Alaska Constitution requires prospective legislators to have lived in the state for three years before registering as a candidate for office. 

State law provides that a voter’s residency begins “by the act of removal joined with the intent to remain in another place.”

To date, the Alaska Supreme Court has not interpreted the phrase “act of removal.”

In written arguments, attorneys Scott Kendall and Samuel Gottstein — representing Armstrong — contended that Armstrong’s residency began in May 2019, when she decided to move in with her future husband, Ben Kellie of Anchorage.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say her residency began in June 2019, because she left the state after her decision in order to gather personal belongings.

The difference matters because Armstrong filed for office June 1 of this year, and a June residency date would make her ineligible to serve.

The Alaska Legislature is closely divided between a Republican caucus and one that includes independents and Democrats. 

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. 

When she sued in December, citing reporting by the Alaska Landmine website, Vazquez requested that result be thrown out and she be awarded the victory. 

Armstrong’s attorneys have previously said they believe that result is unlikely but that a ruling in Vazquez’s favor could result in the seat being declared vacant, which would allow Gov. Mike Dunleavy to appoint a replacement, or a new election could be ordered.

If Walker’s decision is confirmed by the high court, Armstrong would fill the term.

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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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